It's not often that a foreign policy speech is so universally hyped, or as soundly dissed, as President Obama's address in Cairo today. The address is being greeted as the most important international affairs pronouncement of Obama's presidency. It is also being roundly dismissed in the Middle East as fated to be a disappointment even before the poor man has stood up to speak.
Well, let's keep a sense of proportion here. Obama has only been in office less than six months and the Middle East, as a long line of his predecessors will tell you, is the graveyard of American hopes of bringing any resolution to the world's most intractable conflict.
There is also a strong element of double-think in the reactions to the Cairo initiative. On the one hand people seem desperate for a new US President to take a fresh and more even-handed role in the region. On the other hand, they appear all too eager to its failures to deal with such issues as political oppression and corruption and to say that anything it does only makes things worse.
You can't have it both ways. You can't bash President Bush for interfering in the Middle East and throwing America's weight about in the wrong way and then demand of his successor that he imposes democracy and bashes around the region's rulers in a different way.
If it is an America you want – and this is what people do seem to wish for – that doesn't assume that it is always in the right, that doesn't impose its standards on everyone else and that treads carefully and even neutrally down the path towards peace, then you are going to have to accept a US President who is not going to fly to Riyadh and Cairo to tell his hosts that they are corrupt tyrants who must amend their ways or be replaced.
The most important thing that we should be asking of Obama is a more even-handed approach to the central issue of Palestine and a more open-handed approach to relations with the Islamic world in general and Iran in particular. And this what he is doing. Despite the pressure from the pro-Zionist lobby groups in Washington, the recent visit of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the new (and young) President has held firm to his public stance that the only way forward is a two-state solution, that Israel should cease all settlement expansion and that the US is ready for direct talks with Iran and Syria.
He wants the US to initiate a momentum towards peace, he has taken (surprisingly so) as his template the Saudi offer of general Muslim recognition of Israel in return for its withdrawal to the 1967 borders, but he wishes the Arabs to show in return some tangible signs of response to Israeli security concerns. What he hasn't done – and very deliberately so – is to say that he believes America can sort this one out on its own or that one speech will produce instant results.
Now it is easy enough to puncture the hopes that Obama's new approach may have aroused, to point to the election of a hard right government in Israel, the divisions within the Palestinian movement, the difficulty of negotiating with Iran, the poor (appalling indeed) state of the Islamic world where human rights, economic progress and religious extremism are concerned and desapir of any hope for peae in the region. The Arabs aren't ready for it and the Israelis don't see it in their interests to pursue it.
All this is true. But then Obama's aim seems to be not so much to force the pace with the individual players as to change the general climate into one where the players see it in their interest to start moving and fear that they stand to lose if they stand aside
His problem is not that he's too ambitious but the opposite. To really change the dynamic of the Middle East the UIS needs to promote a unity government of Fatah and Hamas for Palestine and a real breakthrough with Iran.
And yet Obama insists that Hamas recognise Israel and foregoes violence without any concessions in return. At the same time he continues to talk about the need for Iran to "set aside its ambitions for a nuclear weapon", although Iran denies it has any such ambition and it would surely be better to take them at their words as the intitial position in entering discusssions. You can make a new start in the Middle East but not with old prejudices.
One knows Obama's difficulties back home, and the pressure he's under. We should recognise that what he is up to is neither easy nor immediately rewarding. But if he's really to make things happen he's going to have to change the rules of the Middle East game. And that means taking a much bigger chance than he seems ready to do today.