There was something for everyone in Barak Obama’s speech in Cairo on Tuesday. It hit all the acceptable notes on compassion, human dignity and peaceful coexistence and delivered its vision of a world without conflict, war or inequality with generous helpings of hyperbole. Perhaps no one should fault the President for the desire to rebuild damaged relations in the Muslim world or in calling for a nuclear weapons free world. But he can and should be faulted for presenting facts that are patently untrue and for the implicit willingness to accommodate evil in his search for an unrealizable vision of world amity.
Obama’s speech was, for all and intents and purposes, a “ hovering speech”, that is, in the great Wilsonian tradition, it hovered over conflicts, border disputes and nuclear proliferation issues, sagaciously dispensing wisdom on how those conflicts could be resolved. Taking no particular side (not really even his own) he could then expostulate that he had come to Cairo to build a new relationship between the United States and the Muslim world – one based on mutual interest and mutual respect: “ America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Well that is well and good if you are talking to the Rotary Club of Cairo, Georgia. But the crowd in Cairo, Egypt, to which he addressed his comments, may not be quite as open to “ sharing what is in our heart” and expressing solidarity with Obama’s universalistic vision of a humanity with similar goals and aspirations.
After all, what does the United States really have in common with a culture and civilization which in the main denies human and political rights to women; has little respect for democratic government; where, in places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and even Kuwait, an accusation of thievery can result in the amputation of hands; where a woman accused of adultery has a 70% chance, regardless of her innocence, of being stoned to death; where human rights activists such Egypt’s own Ayman Nur and other dissidents have spent years rotting in jail for the expressions of their political beliefs?
In the Cairo speech, nearly every historical allusion was nonfactual or inexact: the fraudulent claims that Muslims were responsible for European, Chinese, and Hindu discoveries; the notion that Christian Cordoba was an example of Islamic tolerance during the Inquisition; that the Renaissance and Enlightenment were fueled by Arab learning; that abolition and civil rights in the United States were accomplished without violence.
Then there were the other statements made by Obama which simply deny reality:
What to make of Obama’s statement that “ regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations — to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God.”
It seems that Obama was coloring in the picture of the Islamic world from his own palette of multicultural experience. That the two civilizations do not share “common aspirations” in that the Muslim family unit differs fundamentally from the Western model - was one of the more egregious mistakes. The kind of patriarchal structure that exists in the Muslim world, with its emphasis on honor, its absorption with shame and the apotheosis of the family head, precludes respect for individual rights and needs within the family circle.
Also why, exactly, is it Barak Obama’s responsibility, as President of the United States, “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” Once again the comparison to Wilson is appropriate – the self appointed guardian of righteousness vowing to protect the rights and dignity of the disenfranchised. Wilson’s utopianism came to grief on the shoals of political and cultural realities. Obama should prepare himself for a similar outcome.
And what about this: “And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
Oh, if only Palestinian leaders had ever felt the same way. The struggle for Palestinian self determination has left behind it a blood soaked trail of demagoguery, absence of statesmanship, graft, venality and terrorism. But more than that, there has never emerged in the Palestinian intellectual narrative very much support for the idea of a nation state with its own cultural and political identity. That idea is largely a Western one, foisted on Palestinians in the name of national dignity.
Today Palestinian nationalism, such as it is, largely revolves around the elimination of another state, rather than the creation of a new one. There is nothing in Palestinian circles that approximates the kind of intellectual energy which was dispensed by the founding fathers of either the United States or Israel in detailing the institutions necessary to maintain the superstructure of a new democratic state capable of living in peace with its neighbors. Nor is there is any debate or discussion of these issues.
When talking about dignity, Mr. Obama might have also referred to the demand that any people wishing to join the family of nations should be required to express dignity in their struggle for independence. Perhaps Mr. Obama and his advisors should ask themselves what have the Palestinians done to warrant statehood? Have they demonstrated a willingness to forswear violence, alter their founding documents to reflect the desire for peaceful coexistence or build institutions that would safeguard individual rights? What have they done other than strewn the streets of their neighbor with the wreckage of exploded city buses accompanied by the burning flesh of their occupants?
Obama, like many American presidents, likes to deal with complicated issues through orotund expressions of moral symmetry. The penchant for finding moral, political and cultural equivalence between competing national narratives however leads to gross distortions of historical fact. In Obama’s case it is the conflation of the Jewish people’s suffering through centuries of persecution with the so-called denial of rights to Palestinians. It is in the moral comparisons of the construction of Israeli West Bank settlements to the Palestinians’ incessant campaigns of suicide bombing; it is in drawing parallels between the extraordinary growth of highly organized civil societies such as Japan and South Korea with the chaotic and often dysfunctional economic structures of the Arab world.
When we think of other great presidential speeches abroad, we remember that they were tethered to an idea of American exceptionalism – the concept that America stood for freedom and against tyranny. John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s Berlin speeches were examples of unintimidated American leaders willing to talk down to brutal regimes who exhibited no respect for human rights or the principles of Western freedom. They set the high watermark of American leadership abroad and its resolve to confront evil. There was no evidence in Obama’s speech that anyone in the Arab or Muslim world has anything to fear by failing to abide by civilized norms. Rather, he imparted the strong sense that there would be no more punishment for violations of civilized conduct than mild expressions of tough love.
The United States might well need the help and support of the Muslim world in stymieing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But that does not need to mean that the United States should accept or support the abuses of civilized conduct , driven by Islamic teachings, that are found rampant in the Muslim world. In the struggle between these two civilizations, where one will and must ultimately predominate, Obama has undoubtedly given our adversaries a helping hand.