Last winter, I found a promotional copy of the Norton Reader in my campus mailbox. It contained a copy of Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech delivered in Cairo in 2009, here presented to English professors for use in the classroom as an unqualified hallmark of diplomatic eloquence.
Even as the Middle East erupts in riots, college students will be asked to ponder the question posed by the professor-editors in one of the topic questions:
Obama concludes with a call to action directed especially toward the world’s youth: “And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country — you more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world’ (paragraph 68).” Write a paper in which you discuss way you personally might respond to this call.
The publisher’s instructor’s page tells English professors that this speech “marked a new beginning in U.S. relations with the rest of the world.” Intriguing. So: what has happened as a result of this “new beginning”?
Most recently, we have had a 9/11 invasion of our consulate in Libya resulting in our ambassador and three others being brutally murdered, while surrounding countries — presumably emerging democracies of the “Arab Spring” — erupted into riots, burning the U.S. flag and the symbols of the very president who stood in Cairo as the avatar of the Second Coming.
Mainstream outlets have largely ignored this ineptitude, instead following the continued diversions towards the amateur filmmaker of Innocence of Muslims. Certainly my colleagues — who received extra compensation to select, edit, and write introductions, topic questions, and footnotes to this speech and other selections of study-worthy rhetoric — could not have known the outcome of Obama’s words as they included the speech in a book that at one time would have been filled with only words that have withstood the test of time. (Yes, my colleagues deemed the words of Barack Hussein Obama as worth taking a place next to the venerable words of Abraham Lincoln. This is typical of my colleagues — other Obama speeches are also included in textbooks.)
The Cairo speech has proved testament to the supreme egotism of a man who believes that through his mere words and presence he can turn around centuries of history and entire civilizations. “I have come here,” he proclaimed in Cairo, although sans Roman columns, “to seek a new beginning.” And the world was supposed to stop and take notice. He flattered the Muslim world by lying about the West: the historical errors were legion, remarked on by numerous conservative commentators and historians. The liberal media gave him a pass, letting his reputation as an “intellectual” stand.
But Obama truly believed that such an appeal would make the lion lie down with the lamb. No one else had ever thought to appeal to the better angels of Muslim society, but he would, and would do what no American president had ever done. He would upstage them all, and show that through the power of his words and personality, the most volatile and primitive part of the world would engage in a multicultural discourse. And when he neatly dispensed with Osama bin Laden, the Muslim world would understand that this was the necessary move by a wise leader who respected their culture like no American leader ever had.
We now know that he did not even feel the need to do what other presidents did — get daily in-person security briefings. He was so smart he could just read a summary. So confident was he, and so trusting of the Libyan people he had helped, that he did not worry about security at the embassy and left it in their hands.
We see what happened. But the disaster certainly was not due to the fault of the president, apparently. He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have conducted an apology tour for an obscure YouTube video. Obama even did this before the UN General Assembly, reiterating that “the United States government had nothing to do with this video,” and he then gave a lecture about tolerance and hate: “We not only respect the freedom of religion. We have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe.” It was a grade-school session on bullying.
Again, Obama displayed a belief that his mere words, his explanations, would bring people intent on wiping us out to understanding our way of thinking. Last year at the UN, he had said, “Let there be no doubt: The tide of war is receding,” and he cited troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence. Also last year at the UN, he referred to the protests in Tahrir Square:
We saw in those protesters the moral force of non-violence that has lit the world from Delhi to Warsaw, from Selma to South Africa — and we knew that change had come to Egypt and to the Arab world.
Change has come indeed. On September 23, 2012, the New York Times ran an article titled: “Egypt’s New Leader Spells Out New Terms for U.S.-Arab Ties.” Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi — evidently forgetting the “new beginning” proclaimed in Cairo in 2009 — said that the United States “needed to fundamentally change its approach to the Arab world.” The lead sentence continued, claiming that Morsi’s version of “change” required “showing greater respect for [the Arab world’s] values” if the U.S. “hoped to overcome decades of pent-up anger.”
On Tuesday, September 25, as the president headed to address the UN, another New York Times headline read: “In Arab Spring, Obama Finds a Sharp Test.” Sharp test? No, just a few “bumps in the road,” as Obama described it in a 60 Minutes interview. Is that how our ambassador thought his president would refer to his death?
Obama is facing the same challenges George W. Bush did, as I discovered in writing a guide book about the Cairo speech: Bush also gave practitioners of Islam the benefit of the doubt. An editorial at the Washington Times even claimed: “Obama Gives a Bush Speech.” Of course, Obama and the world thought that the very person of Obama would make all the difference.
But students being taught this speech as an exemplar of rhetoric and diplomacy in a college English class will not likely get this information from their Obama-struck professors. Nor will they learn that a foreign policy that attacks Americans and American principles first is not part of our tradition.
Don’t count on students, who have suffered twelve years of teacher bullying regarding tolerance and Islam appreciation, to be taught the truth about Obama’s Cairo speech.