I had feared worse. Much worse. To be sure, parts of it lived up to my fears and expectations, but there’s a lot that I like. So that while this is certainly not a speech I would deliver, it is a lot better than the one I feared, and I can promise you that leading Muslims are very upset with several parts of it.
President Obama’s most explosive words were about women. He called for equal rights, stressing education, and promising American support for such programs. There is no theme in the Middle East that is more threatening to the misogynist political and religious leaders. If there is any real hope for freedom and democracy in the region, it will be accomplished by the women and their supporters, and the current leaders dread it. I wonder if Obama knows it. If so, full marks to him. But even if he doesn’t, even if he thinks he was simply reciting an intuitively obvious commonplace, he sent chills up and down the spines of the region’s rulers.
He wasn’t eager to embrace Bush’s call for democracy, but he got there anyway, albeit grudgingly. He trotted out one of his favorite multiculti themes (“no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other”), but he reminded his listeners of the enormous success of America and Americans, and of our revolutionary heritage: “The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire.” And, using words that any neocon must applaud, he promised American support for freedom…everywhere.
“…I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas. They are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”
And he stressed that democracy requires more than just elections; governments’ legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed:
“You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion. You must respect the rights of minorities and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise. You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.
Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Quite right. And for once, in a speech that often oozed vagueness, he got specific, referring to the need to respect the rights of Copts (targeted by Egyptian Muslims) and Maronites (targeted by Lebanese Muslims).
For those who expected him to put some distance between the United States and Israel, Obama matter-of-factly stated: there is an unbreakable bond between the two countries. Like others, I wish he had stressed the commitment to democracy that binds us, and I was appalled by his slide into moral equivalence (at one point seeming to compare the Holocaust with Israel’s reaction to Palestinian terrorism; if he really wanted to make a fair comparison, he should have compared Palestinian refugees with Jewish ones from Arab lands), but his straightforward, unambiguous and unequivocal support for the Jewish State was exemplary, as was his call for Israel’s enemies to abandon violence and accept her existence. He doesn’t like the settlements. Lots of American presidents and secretaries of state have said the same thing, as have lots of Israelis.
On the other hand, there were so many errors of history that I was left wondering if there is anyone in the White House that checks facts. “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” But the Muslims had been driven out of Spain by the time of the Inquisition. The Inquisition was Catholic, after all. What was he thinking? And even if he was thinking about an earlier epoch, the so-called Golden Age, “tolerance” is hardly the right word. Yes, non-Muslims were permitted to live, provided that they submitted to Muslim rule and paid their rulers. Yes, Jews were better off in Muslim lands than in Christian areas during the Middle Ages. But “toleration” it wasn’t. One of my best professors used to argue that the word, in its contemporary sense, only began to make sense in the seventeenth century.
He credited Muslims for inventions of others, from the magnetic compass to algebra to pens, arches, and even to printing. It’s as if there were no ancient Chinese inventions, and the Romans had to await the Prophet before they could build the Pantheon. And someone really should tell him that printing came from the Orient, was rejected in Muslim domains, and then developed in Europe. It was introduced into the Middle East in the 15th century by Jews, who were not permitted to publish in Arabic. So the first printing press in the region was brought by Jews who then published in Hebrew.
The absolute worst part of the speech was the mush about Iran. He could have talked about the great Persian contributions to Western culture, or credited Cyrus the Great for issuing the first known document dealing with human rights. He didn’t do that (Cyrus wasn’t a Muslim, after all). Instead, he regretted American meddling in Iran in 1953, and then moved on to assure the mullahs that they were fully entitled to have a (peaceful) nuclear program. As if nobody knew (Bushitlercheney had made the same point, let us not forget). Not a word about Iranian killers around the world. Not a word about the dreadful repression of the Iranian people. Not a word about any possible consequences if, as everyone expects, Iran builds atomic bombs.
That is what happens when you put all your policy eggs in the “diplomacy” basket. And it shows the fundamental folly of the Obama approach: no matter how good (or bad) the words, it’s action that counts in the end. The only new actions announced or promised by the president were good deeds, from a campaign against polio to more student exchanges. Yet there is real evil at work in the Middle East, and while Obama promised to fight against al Qaeda in Pakistan and Iran, he gave no reason to believe that he is coming to grips with the threat from Iran and Syria (indeed the latest news on that front is that we are throwing a love fest in Damascus in coming days and weeks).
Then there was the claim–duly noted by Rush–that “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” Does it mean anything more than “nothing is forever”? If so, what does he think of the great empires of the past, all of which elevated one nation or group over others? Indeed, every country in the world has done that, so far as I know. Are they all doomed? It’s the sort of glib generalization that is either meaningless or collapses from overweight.
But he loves to muse, and he loves to come up with deep thoughts, even though he clearly lacks the background for it. Content aside, the most annoying thing about the Cairo speech was its narcissism. Over and over again he talked about himself, what he thinks, what he wants, what he believes. He talked about “my country,” and so forth. I can’t remember any other president talking this way, and frankly I think it’s in bad taste. He’s our president, his legitimacy derives from our consent, and he should speak in our name, not his own.
I know I’m hopelessly out of touch with the current culture, in which personal feelings have been elevated to replace serious study and thought. But it still annoys me, and I wish he’d stop it.
Finally, there’s his ongoing ambivalence about the United States. It clearly takes a lot out of him to remind the world how much we’ve done for them. He couldn’t bring himself to tell the mob in Berlin that they’re free today because of American soldiers, nor could he tell the crowd in Cairo that America has saved more Muslim lives in the past twenty or so years than any other country on earth. He should have done it. They need to hear it.