What’s at Stake in Cairo: A Conversation with Former Presidential Speechwriter, Troy Senik
by Ryan Burleson, Contributing Writer
May 28, 2009
On June 4, a very popular President Obama will deliver a much-anticipated speech to the Arab world in one of Islam’s most culturally and historically rich epicenters — Cairo — a location that is at the same time symbolic and strategic. Symbolic in that, despite its less than perfect record on human rights protection, Egypt has long been seen by American diplomats as a potential bellwether reform state in the Middle East. Whether through Anwar El Sadat’s bold overtures toward peace with Israel in the 1980s (that led to his brutal assassination) or Hosni Mubarak’s early 21st century assurances of democratization — however hollow — Egypt has expressed at least passing interest in leading the Arab world into modernity. This fact has not been lost on those who believe a lasting Middle Eastern peace will only result from a systemic and attitudinal sea change that is sparked by open-minded Arab leaders. Strategically, setting the stage for Obama’s speech in Egypt’s capital city also serves the purpose of inviting the least vitriol from our friends and enemies; though it goes without saying, of course, that the diplomatic anthill of Arab politics would’ve burdened any choice with at least some scrutiny.
As complicated as the mere choice of venue can be for a politically- and emotionally-charged speech, consider also the debate raging on our own soil currently over the administration’s near-total embrace (astutely noted by Charles Krauthammer) of Bush-era detainee and citizen surveillance policies. Despite Obama’s euphoric relationship with large swaths of the American public throughout the campaign and into his first 100 days as Commander-in-Chief, the cold, hard facts of a post-9/11 security reality have put the administration at odds with the very people who regarded the man as saint and savior less than six months ago. Throw in a growing concern with our Israeli allies over the Likud party’s unwillingness to move toward a two-state solution and one can undoubtedly bet that our domestic and diplomatic tensions are being taken in and poured over with deliberant intent by the Arab audience Obama means to engage, and influence, in early June.
With so much at stake for the administration and U.S. foreign policy, generally, the task of penning the Cairo speech is most certainly a daunting one. And, though no one doubts the speech will be given with the president’s usual degree of bold eloquence, the process of defining the message and the words that will carry it is often one that involves an incalculable mixture of research, meditation and sheer epiphany.
Troy Senik, former presidential speechwriter for George W. Bush and current contributor to Real Clear Politics and the Center for Individual Freedom, knows this dynamic very well. Following is a conversation between Mr. Senik and myself, where he discusses presidential speechwriting, what’s at stake in Cairo, and how – while most of us were sliding comfortably into bed for the evening, during his tenure in the Bush administration – he was just hitting his stride, pouring himself another steaming cup of coffee as he walked the hallowed halls of the White House with a legal pad.
RB: Ben Rhodes, foreign policy speechwriter for President Obama, has outlined the upcoming speech in Cairo as a next step in the process of building positive relationships and dialogue with the Muslim World. He has referred to Obama’s overture to Iran in January as the start of that process. However, many of Obama’s critics are wary of missing an opportunity not to meet the frequent human rights missteps and looming security threats of most Arab governments head-on. Do you see his upcoming speech as a chance to facilitate more engagement with the Arab world, or to deliver a tough message on nuclear non-proliferation and human rights protection?
TS: It will probably be a little bit of both. One of the dangers of White House speechwriting is that every speech goes through what’s called the “staffing process.” That means that all of the relevant folks in the Executive Office of the President and the bureaucracy get their hands on the speech and try to insert their own points of view and their own policy agendas. I’m sure there will be talk about non-proliferation, but it will probably be just that: talk. President Obama has waved his finger at regimes like North Korea and Iran already, and they’ve cheerfully ignored him because they’re confident that there’s no penalty for ignoring him.
As for human rights and democracy promotion, it will be interesting to see if he takes that message abroad. Those were both big parts of the Bush Administration: the “Freedom Agenda” and the Bush Doctrine, respectively. But, Obama has basically kept quiet on both of those issues thus far in his presidency.
I think the upshot is that the Administration desperately wants to convey the message that America is not at war with the entire Arab world. That’s a noble goal, but it’s also something that we’ve been trying since 9/11. I don’t think it necessarily makes the president look weak, but I think it does make him look like he doesn’t have much of an idea of how to deal with the Arab street beyond giving a speech.
RB: The choice of Cairo has been panned by some in the West because of Mubarak’s backsliding on human rights protection in recent years, and by the Arab world, due to Cairo’s pseudo-alliance with Israel, in which Egyptian police have safeguarded the tunnels into Gaza, among other reasons. How important is choosing the location in giving a speech of this magnitude?
TS: It’s important. Egypt may not be an ideal choice, but it’s the Obama Administration’s least worst option. Obama promised a speech in the Muslim world. He can’t do Saudi Arabia, because it’s a cradle of radicalism, a state that we support primarily because of our need for its petroleum, and a totally atavistic society. He could go to Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, but it looks incoherent to give a speech in Southeast Asia when everyone knows your real audience is the Middle East. Jordan is not an option because their relationship with the U.S. has historically been close enough that it would look like Obama was looking for a sycophantic venue. Turkey has been too politically aligned with Israel and would lead to the speech being rejected out of hand by Arabs. So, Egypt certainly has stains, but if you’re looking to reach out to the Arab world, all of your options are states with pretty pockmarked records.
RB:And, obviously, Israel would have been a security nightmare, in addition to presenting a situation closely paralleling the Jordanian dynamic you mentioned.
TS: Right. And going to Israel to talk about the Islamic world would be suicidal. It would be the best possible way for Obama to simultaneously alienate the world’s Jewish and Muslim populations.
RB: Which brings up the issue of how far Obama is willing to go to obtain the first fruits of a peace accord with the Muslim world. The build-up to Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington was primed with shots across the bow from Obama and the Israeli PM, both seemingly frustrated with the other’s perceived next steps in the realm of Arab diplomacy. Obama, and Bush before him, in addition to countless scholars and former diplomats, have advocated a two-state solution. Does Obama have enough political leverage, at home and abroad, to alienate (even if slightly) Israel to achieve better relationships in the Arab world?
TS: Well, that question really gets to the heart of one of the biggest fallacies in the world of diplomacy, which I know for a fact is embraced by a huge swath of the people working in the State Department. The idea is that you make the Arab world like us more by sticking it to Israel. And I think that’s absolutely untrue.
Can Obama put some sunlight between himself and Israel? Sure. But will the Arab states like us as a result? No. They’ll be happy that they’ll have marginally less difficulty in trying to eradicate Israel, but they won’t be carrying American flags through the street anytime soon — at least not unlit ones. The reality is that all the Arab governments really want from us is to keep buying their oil, stop defending Israel, and stay out of their part of the world. So, the only way you can make them happy is by being a supplicant for their cartel, turning your back on the only long-standing democracy in the region, and pretending that Islamic extremism, terrorism, and their routine violations of human rights aren’t a problem. And by any rational standard, that is way too high of a price to pay.
RB: Does the debate over Guantanamo, in which Obama swears to reengage American detainee policy with jurisprudence and constitutional reverence, contribute to how Obama’s speech will be received in Cairo?
TS: Probably more on the domestic side than the international side. The foreign audience might be mindful of the fact that he’s ending up much closer to the Bush Administration’s policies on some war measures than was initially expected, but they know that Obama is a different kind of guy at his core than President Bush was.
On the domestic side, however, it may actually be a problem. With Guantanamo, the interrogation memos, the Pentagon photos, etc., Obama has reached his first real impasse with the public. This week, people started realizing that the administration has no plan for how to close Guantanamo and what to do with the people being detained there. And when you talk about putting these people on American soil, and you learn that 1 out of every 7 we’ve released in the past have gone back on the battlefield, you realize that this isn’t the law school hypothetical that everyone’s been treating it as for the past few years. So I think the public’s had their first widespread dose of skepticism towards Obama, and if he goes to Egypt and gives a speech that looks overly deferential to people who don’t like us, it’s going to compound that concern, especially since that’s starting to look like a pattern for him.
RB: Right. And, this comes at a time when he’s enjoying 64% approval ratings on national security – an undoubtedly pleasing fact to Democrats who’ve struggled against Republicans in this area for years, though just as likely a campaign-resilient and unsustainable number.
Your point also brings to mind a recent piece by Jacob Weisburg at Slate, “What we’ve learned so far about President Obama,” in which the author “continues to suspect him of harboring deeper convictions.” He references reversals on torture and “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” In light of this possibility, that Obama hasn’t quite found his footing in the Oval Office with regards to where political philosophy and the real-world meet, is this speech pre-mature, or is it absolutely necessary given Iran and North Korea’s recent belligerency, in addition to the constant tension elsewhere in the Arab World with Western ideals?
TS: I suspect that in the long view it’s simply irrelevant. Obama is fond of talking about “game changers.” This isn’t one. He’ll go and give the speech and capture the media cycle for a day or two, but that will be it. Unless he has some unanticipated “Let them come to Berlin” or “tear down this wall” moment, it will probably be forgettable. And I see no indication that there’s anything that bold brewing in the White House. So in the end, this probably gets him nowhere.
RB: Referencing his overture to the Iranian people, again, who were celebrating Nowruz — the Persian New Year — during his address in January (a fact he used to link our shared humanity with the Iranian people), would the impact of the Cairo speech be any more or less significant by speaking to the citizens of Arab nations versus the leaders?
TS: It would be much more significant if Obama chose to speak to the Arab people instead of their governments. There is a long tradition of American presidents speaking directly to the populations of nations with whom we have strong disagreements because the American view has traditionally — and rightly — been that we oppose governments, not peoples. That being said, I don’t think Obama will do that for two reasons. One, something that dramatic would indicate that we think of the entire Arab world as essentially hostile dictatorships. Two, you have to be very careful about stirring up the populations in those countries, because in some cases, mass movements would actually yield even worse regimes than the current one (that’s certainly the case with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt).
Also, an important note about the New Year message to the Iranians. While it was addressed directly to the people, it made clear reference to the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” That is Obama’s way of legitimizing the current government there and telegraphing that the U.S. is not seeking regime change. And that’s about as dispiriting a sign as you can get if you’re an Iranian citizen who hopes to live in a freer society.
RB: Do you think he missed an opportunity in the January address?
TS: Yes, but that error was fathered by the policy. The mistake was saying you’re going to basically endorse a dictatorship. Sometimes, reasonable constraints may force you to tolerate a dictatorship, but you never endorse one.
RB: Earlier, you mentioned the complex nature of vetting a presidential speech, especially when it comes to speeches of this magnitude – the “staffing process.” Before a speech gets to this point, though, what were the first steps you took when preparing a speech for President Bush?
TS: You would get a description of the speech and the goals a few weeks in advance, then have the research team gather background material. Depending on the magnitude of the speech, you’d then usually get some guidance from senior staff or the president himself. From there, you’d try to hammer out an outline and/or a rough draft, which for me often consisted of walking the halls of the White House at 11 PM with a cup of coffee and a legal pad. In the Bush White House, the writers would then edit the first draft and send it into the staffing process.
RB: Was Bush the kind of president that poured over every word and turn of phrase, or was he concerned less with specifics and more that his central thesis be present?
TS: President Bush was relentlessly focused on the logic of his remarks. Sometimes that would translate into a focus on minutiae, sometimes it wouldn’t. But often times how much he dove into the details of a speech would be determined by how passionate he was about the topic. The most important thing was that he could see a coherent structure and feel like every point logically flowed into the next one. Like his father, I think he was a little distrustful of high-flying rhetoric. He certainly wouldn’t have attempted a lot of the fireworks that Obama does.
RB: It isn’t surprising that Bush differs in this respect from Obama. David Axelrod, senior advisor to the president, was quoted in a recent Politico piece as saying, “Everyone here sort of lives with the reality that the president is the best speechwriter in the group,” a sentiment also captured in Weisburg’s piece, noting Obama’s penchant for wanting to run the business of the Oval with a high degree of personal oversight.
TS: Yes, and that has to be intimidating. Given Obama’s talents as a writer and a speaker, I’m sure he’s much more intimately involved with the process than most presidents.
RB: What’s the most that Obama, and his speechwriting team, should expect out of a speech to the Muslim world that comes while the U.S. wages two wars in the Middle East? What would you like to see him say?
TS: They are probably expecting some softening in the Arab world’s attitude towards the U.S., but I’m deeply skeptical of that. Speeches can change the hearts of the people, but they almost never change the interests of governments.
I’d like to see him come out strong in favor of universal values instead of doing a multicultural soft-shoe. I’d like to hear him say that peaceful and benevolent religion is an incalculable gift in every corner of the world that it inhabits, just as radicalism is a scourge that must be defeated no matter where and why it takes root. If the nations of the Middle East really crave the international legitimacy they always talk about, they have to be willing to play by the rules of civilized nations and stop using their past and their real and imagined grievances as excuses for violence and tyranny.