The Blog

Why Not Baghdad?

3:54 PM, Dec 4, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Word on the street is Obama will head to an Arab capital for a major speech in his first 100 days. I doubt anyone in the United States will care much one way or the other, preoccupied as we are by our own economic problems, but that's not to say such a speech couldn't have a real effect in the Arab world. Rumor has it that the speech would take place in Cairo. Why not Baghdad? Here's how the New York Times's Helene Cooper explains it:

Why Cairo? It's a matter of elimination. I called Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine, to gauge his thoughts. "Damascus would be cool, except it would look as if he was rewarding the Syrians and it's too soon for that," Mr. Asali said.

True. Maybe in a year, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gets around to a land-for-peace deal with Israel. But for right now, I'm not really seeing Damascus as the spot for the big speech....

Baghdad? Definitely out-of-the-box, but it could appear to validate the Iraq war, which Mr. Obama opposed. Beirut? Too many Hezbollah members - Secret Service would flip its collective lid - and anyway, the Lebanese president has always been a Christian.

Tehran? Too soon for that. Amman? Been there, done that. Islamabad? Too dangerous. Ankara? Too safe. Plus the Turks aren't going to be too crazy about being used for outreach to the Muslim world when they're trying to join the European Union.

If one believes that there is some potential benefit to such a speech, and I'm skeptical but open to the possibility, is there a more compelling location for that speech to take place than in Baghdad? Who cares if it validates the war in Iraq? Obama is to be the President of the United States -- and he's already validated the war by packing his administration with those who supported it. In any event, doesn't Obama now share President Bush's objectives for Iraq, if not the same strategy for getting there. A speech in Baghdad would be a chance to make bipartisan this country's commitment to a stable and democratic Iraq. It would be a chance for Obama to assure those Iraqis who were hostile to President Bush and those who fear a new approach. And most of all, if Obama believes that his words may win hearts and minds, a speech in Baghdad could have the effect of saving American lives by further reducing the strain in relations between U.S. forces and the Iraqi people. How can Cooper be so flip about all that?

Likewise, is the only problem with a speech in Tehran merely that it is "too soon"? If Obama is allowed to speak freely in the capital of Iran and directly to the people of that country, he should go for it (imagine trying to strike the right balance in writing that speech). But does Cooper really believe that the Iranian government would allow Obama to speak so freely as he did in Berlin? Or that the people would be chanting O-ba-ma instead of death to America? Frighteningly, I think she does. Just as she thinks the only thing keeping Syria from a peace deal is that Assad hasn't gotten around to it yet.