Published June 5, 2009
The best way to view President Obama's speech in Cairo is to understand the way Obama views himself and the rhetorical devices he employs. In this case, the key to unlocking Obama's speech may be Aristotle's golden mean, the search for a mid-point between extremes. Obama's rhetorical template is an increasingly familiar one: he gives voice to one side of a dispute and then the other. And Obama — our philosopher-king, the Voice of Reason in an unreasonable world — interprets and arbitrates these disputes, putting them in just the right context and arriving at just the right solution. Or so we are led to believe. The trouble is that Obama's approach at times distorts history and mistreats our closest allies.
The President's Cairo speech begins with a discussion of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — “tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.” Each side holds responsibility for those tensions. But if you read Obama's text carefully, you will come away with the impression that one side in particular — the United States and the West — is much more at fault than the other. Tensions have been fed, according to Obama, by Western colonialism, the mistreatment of Muslim-majority countries during the Cold War, and by” the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization [which] led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.” Those missteps and injustices, Obama implies, all tilt the scales against America and the West.
On the other side of the scale there are mistakes for which the Muslim world is responsible. And here the blame lies with “violent extremists” who have exploited those (Western-created) tensions in “a small but potent minority of Muslims.” This led to the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians. But even that eventually counts against America, at least in this respect: militant Islamic attacks “led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.”
Obama's second “golden mean” section of the speech had to do with the United States and Iran. Obama presents the two nations as equally at fault for the current pass. In the middle of the Cold War, Obama tells us, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. And since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. “Rather than remain trapped in the past,” he says, “I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward… without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.”
Obama's speech's third “golden mean” section has to do with Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan is the good war. It deserves our support, and it will have it. Iraq, on the other hand, was the “war of choice” — one that Obama opposed, one that caused friction within America and between America and the world, and one that symbolizes a failure of diplomacy. The Iraqi people may be better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, Obama admits, and we do have a responsibility to help Iraq forge a better future — but the clear message of the speech is that Obama found the war unnecessary and distasteful and he is eager to wash his, and America's, hands of it, as much and as soon as possible.
Obama's fourth “golden mean” deals with Israel and the Palestinians. In this section, Israel is portrayed as home to a historically persecuted people. Threatening Israel with destruction is “deeply wrong” and only serves to “evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.” At the same time, “it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” The situation for the Palestinian people is “intolerable.” America “will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” The result is a “stalemate”; both sides have “legitimate aspirations” but also suffer from “a painful history that makes compromise elusive.” We cannot see this conflict “only from one side or the other” because that will “be blind to the truth.” And it is time to act on what everyone knows to be true: Israel will not go away and the Palestinians need a state. To that end, Palestinians must abandon violence. “Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed,” Obama said. “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus,” he went on.
Israelis, on the other hand,
must acknowledge that just as Israel 's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine 's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel 's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank . Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.
Among the problems with Obama's speech is that in order to make his narrative fit, he must manipulate history, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, sometimes by what he omits and sometimes by what he states. Let's take things in order.
In his discussion of the West and the Muslim world, President Obama fails to mention how, in the past two decades, the United States has shed blood and treasure in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq — all Muslim-dominated countries — in an effort to aid tens of millions of people who were threatened by or living under ruthless dictatorships. The impulse to help these countries was not in every instance simply humanitarian; but in every instance humanitarianism was a factor, and in some instances it was the dominant one. Today, more than 50 million Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq are liberated from two of the most sadistic regimes we have ever witnessed. It might be nice for President Obama — and frankly those in the Arab world — to say that, even just once.
Nor does Obama mention other efforts to help Muslims — for example, the extraordinary humanitarian efforts by Americans to aid Indonesia in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
In addition, Obama's account of the resentment that exists, and in some instances dominates, the Islamic world today is shallow and misleading. For example, he does not connect the political and economic repression in the Arab world to the rise of jihadism. Arab intellectuals themselves have recognized these failures, calling on Arab governments to address the “freedom gap” and push for internal reform, greater politics participation, and economic openness. And to imply that the West has been a key accelerator when it comes to radical Islam is simply wrong. I realize Obama has no obligation to devote a speech to problems plaguing the Arab and Islamic worlds; but he does have an obligation to provide a fair account of things if he chooses to raise the topic.
As for his discussion of America and Iran, Max Boot puts it well. Obama's account
is accepting the (false) narrative of the Iranian Revolution, which holds that America's role in overthrowing Mossadeq more than half a century ago — a development that would not have been possible had the leftist prime minister not lost support in the Iranian street — is just as bad as the campaign of mass murder and kidnapping that Iran continues to support at this very moment.
On Afghanistan and Iraq: while I appreciate what Obama says about the former, his portrayal of Iraq is distorted. Of all the countries in the Arab/Persian world, Iraq is among the closest to fulfilling the principles Obama praises in his speech, including democracy and human rights, religious freedom, freedom for women, progress and modernity. Iraq certainly isn't perfect, and in some respects it has many miles to travel. But its government is, as even Obama had to concede, democratically elected. And it is certainly on a more enlightened path than, say, Iran or even Egypt, for whom Obama had nothing but praise. Yet instead of celebrating the achievements in Iraq — which have been extraordinary, even as it remains an imperfect and fragile nation — Obama focused mostly on the negative. It is clear that long ago Obama settled on a (negative) view of Iraq. While events have thankfully forced him to back away from his previously (irresponsible) position, he still cannot see it for what it is.
Then there is the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. What is troubling about Obama's account is the moral equivalence he asserts between Israel and the Palestinians is false. It also ignores what Israel is: democratic and lawful, willing to grant rights to its Arab citizens, willing to hold itself accountable for its mistakes, a country of bustling energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and a thriving civil society. Israel is among the most admirable and impressive nations in the world, and that we have ever seen. And all of this despite living in a region that for the most part despises her and in some instances wants to destroy her.
Beyond that, Obama perpetuates falsehoods, including the one that Israelis deny the Palestinian right to exist just as Palestinians deny Israel's right to exist. That is true only in rare cases, and in any event it fails to take into account Israel's many good-faith efforts to give the Palestinians a homeland, including in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered almost all of the territories the Palestinians had asked for. Yasir Arafat rejected the offer and began a second intifada. And in Gaza in 2005 Israel did what no other nation — not the Jordanians, not the British, not anyone — has ever done before: provide the Palestinians with the opportunity for self-rule. In response, Israel was shelled by thousands of rockets and mortar attacks. Hamas used Gaza as its launching point. Yet it is Israel , according to Obama, that must make yet more concessions and give up yet more land, as if stopping settlements will fundamentally transform Palestinian attitudes. It will not. The sine qua non for progress is for the Palestinian leadership to make its own inner peace with the Jewish state. If it did, as Jordan has, a Palestinian homeland would surely follow; and if it does not, peace is impossible. Israel has already shown it can make peace with Arab countries and give up huge swaths of land (like the Sinai Desert) if only those nations reconcile themselves to the existence of Israel and cast aside their violent animus toward her.
The suffering of the Palestinian people is real and tragic and needs to end. But the source of that suffering lies with a corrupt leadership and the complicity of other Arab nations. To cast all the blame on Israel is deeply unfair.
President Obama, in his speech to the Muslim world, said he would “speak the truth as best I can.” Some of what he said about democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development and opportunity was sound and appropriate. And I will concede, as others have, that it could have been worse — though that's a fairly low bar to clear. But a good deal of what Obama presented, particularly in the first half of the speech, was a cartoon version of history. In the process, Obama downplayed the achievements of the Arab country we have very strong relations with and placed the most intense pressure on the nation that counts among our closest allies and best friends. I have little doubt that Obama's speech will be hailed by the Muslim world and by the chattering class. But it was, in some important respects, a misleading address, and therefore a regrettable one. The things Obama will win from the speech will be, I think, ephemeral; the distortions of history and reality more enduring. It is not, I think it's fair to say, the balance Aristotle had in mind.