All of the attention paid to President Barack Obama’s speech to Cairo—including to an extent the negative criticism—has played into the rather strange concept behind it all; that is, that the speech is in itself some kind of real act that will effect a sought-after real-world impact.
President Obama’s speech to “the Muslim world” (itself a ridiculous if not dangerous concept as observed by David P. Goldman) was bereft of those elements that might enable a speech to proactively affect history. Despite the heartburn it caused to critics on a rhetorical basis, the speech contained no genuine new policy initiatives, but merely reiterated the existing policies of Obama’s administration.
Absent the announcement of an authentic new policy, it seems to me that there are only two ways in which a politician’s speech can be a lever that substantially shifts history in a direction desired by the speech-maker.
Firstly, made during a political campaign, an artful speech can further the election of a particular candidate, in this way ultimately delivering historical consequences. President Obama knows all about that kind of thing. However, he is not running for election in “the Muslim world” (and, as at least a nominal Christian he would have no chance in majority-Muslim nations if he were).
Secondly, a speech by a political leader can rally a people in a time of war or of severe crisis; think Winston Churchill and “we shall fight on the beaches.” By stiffening the collective spine and raising the morale of a nation, a speech in such a context can geninely contribute to shaping history. Morale is integral to the successful fighting of a war. But President Obama’s speech was rallying no one; least of all his own (American) people. And with its painful and convoluted attempts to be evenhanded, it will have inspired few in any area of the world, Muslim or otherwise.
President Obama has achieved much in his life, for himself, by means of speeches. Indeed, he’s achieved the most lofty position of power available to any individual in this modern world, as President of the United States. Perhaps it is natural that he should believe he can continue making “change” by means of rhetoric. However, absent any new policy, apart from any campaign for election, and rallying none to anything at all, President Obama’s speech in Cairo was, to quote a phrase, just words. And when the lights and cameras have had some time to cool down, it seems to me that Muslims and others who momentarily paid attention will look back upon it only as a truly hollow moment.