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The crafting of Obama's Cairo speech to world Muslims

The president worked with dozens but put his own delicate touch onto a blunt address that would grab global attention - and some criticism.

August 02, 2009|Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — He sat with his legs crossed in an armchair in the Oval Office, his brow furrowed. Aides clustered on the couches around him. They could see black scratch marks all over their proposal for the most sensitive speech of his young presidency -- his long-promised address to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

For weeks, they had toiled over the text. Now, some stole glances at the lead writer of the address, 31-year-old Ben Rhodes, as the lengthening silence confirmed that their best shot had fallen short.

Finally, President Obama dropped the manuscript into his lap and took a deep breath.

"I know you've been under a lot of pressure to get this right," he said. "But this speech is way too cautious. We have to say everything and say everything candidly. I'm not going all the way to Cairo to do anything else."

Despite the risk that he would give offense, he told his staff that he intended to address some of the most sensitive issues in foreign policy -- terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the inflammatory rhetoric of many Islamic leaders -- in terms that would grab the world's attention.

Obama worked his way around the cream-colored couches that flank the Oval Office fireplace, probing his aides' thoughts.

"We knew all the arguments not to say things," one recalled.

"He said, 'Look, put all those concerns aside. We need to be aware of them. . . . But I'm not going to fail to raise 9/11. I'm not going to not talk about women's rights in this way because it might be uncomfortable for some people.' "

The story of how the speech came into being is based on interviews with senior White House staffers and others directly involved. It reveals how Obama embraces opportunities for landmark addresses that can define him and his presidency -- as he did in his campaign speech on race and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. -- and how once given the right platform he prepares obsessively.

Whatever else it achieved, the June 4 address at Cairo University inspired discomfort.

Some Israelis and American Jews recoiled at the way Obama juxtaposed the suffering of the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitic persecution with the experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Some Muslims were stunned to hear a Christian American president quote the Koran as he spoke to them about changing their attitudes toward Israel.

Whether Obama's blunt approach brings progress remains to be seen. What is already clear is that his outspokenness was no accident.

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Line by line

On a Saturday morning in early May, not long after the milepost of the first hundred days of his presidency, Obama summoned several aides to the Oval Office. Sunshine streamed through the French doors that open onto the Rose Garden. Denis McDonough, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, was there.

So was Rhodes, who had abandoned youthful dreams of becoming a novelist in favor of public policy. Rhodes, who has a master's degree in fiction writing from New York University, who had helped write the Iraq Study Group report and recommendations for the 9/11 Commission before working on Obama's presidential campaign.

One of six White House speechwriters, Rhodes had written some of Obama's most significant addresses, including foreign policy speeches during the campaign.

As a candidate, Obama had promised to give an address from a "major Islamic forum" at the outset of his presidency. The speech would signal a new day in U.S. relations with the Islamic world, he declared, and make it clear that "we are not at war with Islam."

On this May morning in the White House, Obama was dressed in his weekend working uniform of shirt sleeves and slacks. Speaking without notes, he outlined the message he wanted to convey in Cairo.

As usual, Rhodes wrote furiously on a white legal pad.

As the address took shape, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who spent summers in Israel as a boy, would review almost every iteration.

David Axelrod, the president's top political advisor, would be deeply involved. So would other political aides and national security officials.

But Rhodes would be the principal draftsman -- with Obama passing judgment line by line.

The speech-writing team established a headquarters of sorts at the desk of Jenny Urizar, an assistant to McDonough. Her office space is designated as a secure site for storing sensitive information -- a "skiff," in White House parlance.

They began by drawing up lists of people to consult. "Make sure you talk to Muslims," Obama had said.

Soon, scores of experts and advocates were sending memos, polling data and letters in hopes of influencing the speech.

One by one, the experts got calls from Pradeep Ramamurthy, an FBI terrorism analyst detailed to the National Security Council. Diplomats came to meetings under fluorescent lights in the West Wing basement. Think-tank experts streamed into the Old Executive Office Building in groups of a dozen or so.

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