- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Today, we begin with America’s president and then channel a deceased icon of America’s blue-collar politics to carry us to our destination - the fates of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the hateful President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

On the afternoon of June 4, Muslims around the world paused in their homes, workplaces, cafes and campuses and focused upon a single image: The president of the United States was speaking to them from Egypt.

“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” said the man who had just referred to himself as Barack Hussein Obama. His address was one of the most conceptually well-framed leadership presentations of any president since our own Civil War. It focused upon a history of our religions and cultures in a way that fused complexity into clarity and pointed listeners toward a compelling and visionary theme:

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity.”

Remember prosperity; it’s a recurring theme.

No sooner was Mr. Obama done than, back in the United States, the talking-head cable news was awash with what-it-all-means punditry. Conservatives seemed especially at pains as they persisted in lamely diminishing what had just transpired. Just words, they said. Global grandstanding. Liberal. Naive. Unlikely to change anything. As they spoke, they looked as if they’d been forced to suck lemons off-camera.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Lebanon’s voters were swept into the final days of an incendiary parliamentary election campaign. Beirut experts predicted a decisive victory by Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed political faction that is complimented by a highly armed military wing. Hezbollah has scored political gains with anti-American appeals and by delivering services to people in a country where things often don’t get done.

This is where we pause to channel the late former U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, and recall the Massachusetts Democrat’s famous dictum: “All politics is local.” Some conservatives began acting as if Old Tip was their new best philosopher - because if he was right, then it must prove Mr. Obama’s speech was naive.

Fast-forward to Sunday’s election: Shockingly, Hezbollah, supported by Shi’ites, was unexpectedly defeated by a U.S.-aligned coalition backed by Lebanon’s Sunnis. Christian swing voters made the difference.

Lebanese analysts widely credited Mr. Obama’s conciliatory and future-looking speech as having been decisive. They said Mr. Obama seemed to have neutralized the anti-Americanism that has often been prevalent. Mr. Obama’s “New Beginning” speech to the Muslim world - especially its vision of progress toward genuine prosperity - may have resonated with Lebanon’s middle classes.

This theory is being road-tested on yet another regional campaign trail. In Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election was seen facing a challenge, with a large turnout reported in Friday’s voting. Results are expected to be announced Saturday.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was being blamed for mismanaging the economy. Iran’s large, well-educated and Western-admiring middle class finds him an embarrassment for his vehement anti-Americanism and for insisting the Holocaust never happened. Many prefer former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Mr. Obama discussed Iran directly in his speech. He supported peaceful nuclear-power plants for Iran but never nuclear bombs. He properly acknowledged the U.S. role in overthrowing Iran’s elected government a half-century ago. And, of course, there was his focus on a prosperous regional future.

If in the final tally Saturday Iran’s middle-class voters fire their embarrassing president, will Mr. Obama’s speech be seen once again as a catalyst for change in the Middle East? Perhaps.

If so, will this prove that sage philosopher Mr. O’Neill was wrong? That all politics isn’t local, after all?

No. Actually, it may prove Old Tip was right. After all, Mr. Obama’s essential message to the Middle East comes down to this: People in Gaza, Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, et cetera, deserve to be safe at home, secure at the market and at work so they can earn a living wage. Mr. Obama’s international dream is about as local as it gets.

Martin Schram is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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