All smart analyses of the Obama administration begin with Chicago. That's where the top members of the administration were tested and formed. The Chicago mentality is the one they take with them wherever they go.

That means they start with an awareness of diversity. The nation and the world are a bunch of jostling wards that have to be knit together.

That means they are not doctrinaire. Chicagoans like to see themselves as pragmatists, not ideologues.

That means they contain both sides of The Great Tension. In Chicago, there is a tension between the lakefront and the neighborhoods inland. The lakefront tends to be idealistic, earnest and liberal. The neighborhoods are clever, cautious and Machiavellian. In all great endeavors, the Obama administration weaves together both of these tendencies.

President Barack Obama's Cairo speech characteristically blended idealism with cunning. At one level, the speech was an inspiring effort to create a new dialogue in the Middle East.

Obama came to a region in which the different groups have their own narratives and are accustomed to shouting past one another. Obama, as is his custom, positioned himself above the fray and tried to create a new narrative that all sides could relate to.

In the Obama narrative, each side has been equally victimized by history, each side has legitimate grievances and each side has duties to perform. To construct this new Middle East narrative, Obama strung together some hard truths, historical distortions, eloquent appeals and strained moral equivalences.

The president's critics complained on Thursday about Obama's distortions: The plight of the Palestinians is not really comparable to the plight of former slaves in the American South. The Treaty of Tripoli in 1796 was not really a glorious example of Muslim-U.S. cooperation, but was a failed effort to use bribery to stop piracy.

But this is diplomacy, not scholarship. Obama was using this speech to show empathy and respect. He was asking people in different Muslim communities to give the United States a new look and a fresh hearing. He was showing people in a region besotted with tiresome hysterics how to talk to one another with understanding and dignity.

That was the idealistic part of the speech, and it was effective. But there was another layer, designed for the people in the ministries. In this layer, Obama implied U.S. policies that are cautious and Machiavellian. On nearly every substantive issue, Obama scaled back American goals and expectations.

The United States used to talk of ending Iran's nuclear program. But, as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed, now Obama only hopes to prevent Iran from weaponizing its nukes. The U.S. used to aim to de-radicalize Islam. Now Obama accepts radical groups so long as they don't kill people. The United States used to want to turn Iraq into a model for the region. Now Obama merely wants Iraq to be the sort of place that America can safely leave behind.

The big retreat to realism concerns democracy promotion. The Bush administration tried to promote democracy, even at the expense of stability. That proved unworkable.

But many of us hoped that Obama would put a gradual, bottom-up democracy-building initiative at the heart of his approach. This effort would begin with projects to create honest cops and independent judges so local citizens could get justice. It would make space for civic organizations and democratic activists. It would include clear statements so the world understands that America is not in bed with the tired old Arab autocrats.

There was a democracy-promotion section to the speech, and given the struggle behind it, maybe we should be grateful it was there at all. But it was stilted and abstract - the sort of prose you get after an unresolved internal debate. The president didn't really champion democratic institutions. He said that governments "should reflect the will of the people" and that citizens should "have a say" in how they are governed.

Obama didn't describe how a democratic Iraq could influence the region. He seems to have largely given up on democracy promotion in Egypt.

Larry Diamond of Stanford liked the Cairo speech but pointed out that Obama delivered it in a country where an aging dictator is passing power to his son, where the country is crumbling to dust because of autocracy and stagnation. The administration seems to accept this. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post noted, it's slashing aid to Egypt's democratic activists.

This speech builds an idealistic facade on a realist structure. And this gets to the core Obama foreign-policy perplexity. The president wants to be an inspiring leader who rallies the masses. He also wants be a top-down realist who cuts deals in the palaces. There is a tension between these two impulses that even a sharp Chicago pol is having trouble managing.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and a commentator on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."

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