The “amen corner” has already spoken–President Obama has delivered another masterpiece in Egypt and the relationship between the U. S. and the Muslim world will never be the same. Well, let’s take a deep breath and reflect on it in more depth.
To his credit, unlike the first two legs of his international tour in Europe and Latin America, during which his remarks were littered with confessions and apologies for America’s many transgressions over the past century or so and which was highlighted by a 50-minute dressing down from a Marxist thug, an insult which went totally unanswered by anyone in the U. S. delegation, the Cairo speech was much less demeaning to his country and much more relevant.
It covered the gamut of the critical issues, from democracy to economic development to Palestine/Israel to Iraq to Afghanistan to women’s rights to religious freedom–a pretty comprehensive list. And he was appropriately candid in his negative references to those who deny or justify the 9/11 attack and the Holocaust, as well as those who practice “violence” (his substitute for terrorism, a word not used in the speech) in the cause of claiming moral authority. And naturally all of this was couched in terms of “a new beginning” for U. S./Muslim relations (meaning post-Bush, of course).
So far, so good, and everyone is talking about the numerous applause interruptions. And there were many, but a review of their prompting phrases reveals an interesting pattern–not one was prompted by a reference to a call for change in the behavior of the Muslim world; every applause line was a reference to what America will do to change its policies in and attitudes about the Middle East or to further support economic development in the region or to stop the growth of Israeli settlements or to close Gitmo or to a commitment that America will never go to war with Islam. In fact, I could find no significant challenge to the Muslim world to modify its behavior or to condemn global terrorist jihad (another word that was not used) in any way. The only possible exception was a suggestion that each culture should resist negative stereotypes of the other, a line that was heartily applauded.
So what we had was vintage Obama–plenty of style points, smooth delivery, well articulated to convey the sense that things will be OK now that he is in charge. We’ll see.
But conspicuously missing from the speech was the truth about U. S./Muslim relations in any real depth, which he could have briefly outlined as suggested recently by Charles Krauthammer: Five military campaigns in the past 20 years engaged by Americans on behalf of Muslims resulting in the liberation of the people of Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These efforts brought little gratitude, it should be noted, but were accompanied by hatred, assassination, mass murder, and economic attack, to wit: the assassination of our ambassador in Sudan, the Arab oil embargo, the murder of our ambassador to Lebanon, the attack on our embassy in Teheran and the holding of our hostages for 14 months, the bombing of our embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, the attack on the USS Cole, and ultimately the attack of 9/11.
There is plenty of evidence here that a state of war has existed between America and radical Muslim jihadists for about 30 years, for most of which time the mainstream Islamic world has been at best ambivalent and at worst complicit and enabling.
Likewise conspicuously missing from Obama’s presentation was any reference to the difficult choices that responsible Muslim leaders must make to bring the Arab Middle East into modernity. He could have referenced Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture of 2006, much maligned in the Muslim world for its alleged blasphemy, but in fact a textbook outline of how the choices made by Islamic intellectual and theological leadership over the centuries have resulted in an inability to reconcile the truths of their religion with those of reason, a critical ingredient that has produced the dominance of the West in scientific and economic development. He briefly mentioned the Muslim role in paving the way for the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but the Muslim world was not a participant in either transformation, nor did it experience a Reformation or the Scientific Revolution.
Nor was there any emphasis in the speech on the responsibility of Muslim leadership, particularly in the Middle East, to use its vast oil wealth to leverage its development, both economically and culturally, through the education of its young people and the cultivation of the minds of its women.
Beyond these omissions, there was the typical implication moral equivalence of Israel’s defense of its right to exist vs. the Palestinian right to its own state and the equivalence of U. S. installation of the Shah in the mid-1950s as a protection of American Cold War interests with 30 years of serial acts of war by Iran on the U. S.
I wish the President well in his campaign to “change the image of America around the world”, whatever that means beyond “we’re not George Bush”, but the large majority of Americans still believe in American exceptionalism, which among other things means that, as George Weigel has so well noted, there is no alternative to U. S. leadership in the war against global jihadism, not only because the U. S. has the resources for the job, but because it is, or ought to be, the repository of the ideas, drawn from both faith and reason, that must shape that struggle. I hope, but wonder if, Barack Obama understands or believes that or really knows the people he is leading.