Obama's Cairo speech from an Israeli perspective
By Barry Rubin
Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo is one of the most bizarre orations ever made by a U.S. president, not a foreign policy statement but rather something invented by Obama, an international campaign speech, as if his main goal was to obtain votes in the next Egyptian primary. That approach defined Obama’s basic themes: Islam’s great. America is good. We’re sorry. Be moderate (not that you haven’t always been that way). Let’s be friends.
Here, Obama followed the idea that if you want someone to like you agree with almost everything he says. Obama also gave, albeit with some minor variations, the speech that the leader of a Third World Muslim country might give, justifying it in advance by claiming America is a big Muslim country, after all.
Of course, the speech had tremendous—though temporary—appeal combined with its counterproductive strategic impact. It will make him more popular. It may well make America somewhat less unpopular. But its effect on Middle East issues and U.S. interests is another matter entirely.
The first problem is that Obama said many things factually quite untrue, some ridiculously so. Pages would be required to list all these inaccuracies. The interesting question is whether Obama consciously lied or really believes it. I’d prefer him to be lying, because if he’s that ignorant then America and the world is in very deep trouble. If he really believes Islam’s social role is so perfect, radical Islamists are a tiny minority, Palestinians have suffered hugely through no fault of their own, and so on, then he’s living in a fantasy world. Unfortunately, we are not. The collision between reality and dream is going to be a terrible one.
The second problem is the speech’s unnecessarily extreme one-sidedness. Obama portrays the West as the guilty party. Despite a reference to September 11—even that presented as an American misdeed, unfair dislike of Islam resulting— he gave not a single example of Islamist or Muslim responsibility for anything wrong in the world.
Obama could easily have made the same points in a balanced way: you’ve made mistakes; we’ve made mistakes. You’ve done things to us; we’ve done things to you. And having established that I respect you, let me tell you how Americans feel and what’s needed. But that’s not how he chose to do it. So afraid was Obama of giving offense—and thus not maximizing his popularity-at-all–costs mission—he did the political equivalent of scoring an own-goal. President Bill Clinton said, “I feel your pain.” In effect, Obama declared, “We’re your pain.”
So if Muslims are always the innocent victims, isn't Usama bin Ladin and others correct in saying that all the violence and terrorism to date has been just a "defensive Jihad" against external aggression and thus justifiable? Why should anything change simply because Obama has "admitted" this and asked to start over again? When he cited examples of oppression, Obama listed only Bosnia (where he didn’t even mention the U.S. role in helping Muslims), along with Israel, and also the Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Darfur. He didn’t mention terrorist violence and mistreatement of non-Muslims by Muslims in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Sudan, the Gaza Strip, against Israel, Europe or even Egypt itself.
This is a hallmark of the kind of thinking dominating much contemporary Western thought extending something that works in their own societies-- where self-criticism, apology, and unilateral concessions really can lead to the other side forgiving and compromising--to places where it doesn't work. In the Middle East if you say you’re to blame, that communicates to the other side that their cause is right and they're entitled to everything it wants. If you apologize, you’re weak. Sure, some relatively Westernized urban liberals will take what Obama said that way, I doubt whether radical states and political forces, as well as the masses, will do so.
The main ingredient in the Obama speech was flattery. There is a bumper sticker that says: Don’t apologize. Your friends don’t need to hear it and your enemies don’t care. Obama’s situation might be described as: Don’t grovel. It scares the hell out of your friends and convinces your enemies you owe them big time. As a result, the mainstream in the region will say, “We were right all the time. Obama admitted it!” While more extreme radicals say, “We’ve won and America’s surrendering.” But if Obama, as it appears, is running to be the region’s favorite politician, he’ll find he—not to mention America’s allies--has to give up many more things to win that dubious honor.
Third, Obama undermined the existing states. True, to Obama's credit, he did talk about reform, democracy, and equal rights for women. Yet the speech suggests to listeners is: democracy plus Islam equals solution. If Islam is so perfect and has such a great record—except for a tiny minority of extremists—why shouldn’t it rule? And since the extremists are presumably al-Qaida, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians in the audience must have found a lot to applaud. How will this go over with the rulers Obama wants as allies?
Finally, Obama played into the stereotype that Israel is the central political issue in the region. Others, of course, are happy to find the usual scapegoat. An Associated Press headline reads, “Obama’s Islam Success Depends on Israel.” Is the entire “Muslim World” just waiting for Israel to stop building a few thousand apartment units a year before deciding that America is great, reform is needed, and moderation wise.
Obama’s phrases were carefully crafted. He called on Palestinians to stop violence, show their competence in administration, and accept a two-state solution, living in peace alongside Israel. Hamas was commanded to be moderate. Yet he in no way seemed to condition Palestinians getting a state on their record. His administration may think this way but he didn’t make that clear.
Middle Eastern ears won’t hear this aspect--which is part of the reason they may cheer the speech—in the way Washington policymakers intend. Inasmuch as the United States now has more credibility for them it’s because they hope it will just force Israel to give without them having to do much. When this doesn’t happen, anger will set in, intensified by the fact that the president “said” the Palestinians are in the right and should have a state right away.
Everything specific concerning Israel’s needs and demands--an end to incitement, security for Israel, end of terrorism, resettlement of refugees in Palestine—weren’t there. While Israel was specifically said to violate previous agreements on the construction within settlements issue—an assertion that’s flat-out wrong—there was no hint that the Palestinians had done so.
I can’t shake the image of Obama as the new kid in school, just moved into the neighborhood, fearful of bullies, who says anything to ingratiate himself and is ready to turn over his lunch money. There’s a famous line in “Citizen Kane” where one characters says that it’s very easy to make a lot of money….If all you want to do is make a lot of money. It’s also easy to make a lot of popularity, if that’s all one wants to do. An American president has to do more, a lot more.
Obama's Cairo speech from an American perspective
A WSJ editorial
One benefit of the Obama Presidency is that it is validating much of George W. Bush's security agenda and foreign policy merely by dint of autobiographical rebranding. That was clear enough yesterday in Cairo, where President Obama advertised "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." But what he mostly offered were artfully repackaged versions of themes President Bush sounded with his freedom agenda. We mean that as a compliment, albeit with a couple of large caveats.
So there was Mr. Obama, noting that rights such as "freedom to live as you choose" and "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed" were "not just American ideas, they are human rights." There he was insisting that "freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together," and citing Malaysia and Dubai as economic models for other Muslim countries while promising to host a summit on entrepreneurship.
There he was too, in Laura Bush-mode, talking about the need to expand opportunities for Muslim women, particularly in education. "I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles," he said. "But it should be their choice."
Mr. Obama also offered a robust defense of the war in Afghanistan, calling it "a war of necessity" and promising that "America's commitment will not weaken." That's an important note to sound when Mr. Obama's left flank and some Congressional Democrats are urging an exit strategy from that supposed quagmire. On Iraq, he acknowledged that "the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein" and pledged the U.S. to the "dual responsibility" of leaving Iraq while helping the country "forge a better future." The timeline he reiterated for U.S. withdrawal is the one Mr. Bush negotiated last year.
The President even went one better than his predecessor, with a series of implicit rebukes to much of the Muslim world. There would have been no need for him to specify that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis if Holocaust denial weren't rampant in the Middle East, including Egypt, just as there would have been no need to name al Qaeda as the perpetrator of 9/11 if that fact were not also commonly denied throughout the Muslim world. There also would have been no need to insist that "the Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems," if that were not the modus operandi of most Arab governments.
Mr. Obama also noted that "among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's," a recognition of the supremacist strain in Islamist thinking. He also included a pointed defense of democracy, including "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed" and "confidence in the rule of law." We doubt the point was lost on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, now in his 29th year in office. All of this will do some good if it leads to broader acceptance among Muslims of the principles of Mr. Bush's freedom agenda without the taint of its author's name.
As for the caveats, Mr. Obama missed a chance to remind his audience that no country has done more than the U.S. to liberate Muslims from oppression -- in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo and above all in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 50 million people were freed by American arms from two of the most extreme tyrannies in modern history. His insistence on calling Iraq a "war of choice" is a needless insult to Mr. Bush that diminishes the cause for which more than 4,000 Americans have died.
He also couldn't resist his by now familiar moral self-indulgence by asserting that he has "unequivocally prohibited the use of torture" and ordered Guantanamo closed. Aside from the fact that the U.S. wasn't torturing anyone before Mr. Obama came into office, his Arab hosts can see through his claims. They know the Obama Administration is "rendering" al Qaeda detainees to other countries, some of them Arab, where their rights and well-being are far less secure than at Gitmo.
The President also stooped to easy, but false, moral equivalence, most egregiously in comparing the U.S. role in an Iranian coup during the Cold War with revolutionary Iran's 30-year hostility toward the U.S. He also compared Israel's right to exist with Palestinian statehood. But while denouncing Israeli settlements was an easy applause line, removal of those settlements will do nothing to ease Israeli-Palestinian tensions if the result is similar to what happened when Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza. We too favor a two-state solution -- as did President Bush -- but that solution depends on Palestinians showing the capacity to build domestic institutions that reject and punish terror against other Palestinians and their neighbors.
Hanging over all of this is the question of Iran. In his formal remarks, Mr. Obama promised only diplomacy without preconditions and warned about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Yet surely Iran was at the top of his agenda in private with Mr. Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, both of whom would quietly exult if the U.S. removed that regional threat. They were no doubt trying to assess if Mr. Obama is serious about stopping Tehran, or if he is the second coming of Jimmy Carter.
It is in those conversations, and in the hard calls the President will soon have to make, that his Middle East policy will stand or fall.
I think that the WSJ is right as far as it goes but overlooks what Rubin stresses: The Middle East is a different culture that will hear things very differently from the way Americans do. And it is how people in the Arab world hear it that matters. Obama is a novice; Prof. Rubin speaks from vast close-up experience
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