Jun 06 2009

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Obama’s Magic Carpet Ride

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President Obama went to Cairo on Friday with his trademark ambition very much intact. Still busy reordering America at home, the President traveled to Egypt to give voice to his bold goal of seeking a new beginning between the United States and the world’s billion plus Muslims.

I have to say it, this man does not play “small ball.”

And, by and large, the speech was good.

As the President praised the accomplishments of Islam, quoted the Koran and spoke to his own uniquely American background and rise to power, it was hard not to picture hardened Al Qaeda operatives feeling as if the rug had been pulled from beneath them. Over the last seven years we Americans have come to see something sadly familiar in the terror attacks around the globe. But with Obama’s speech, you get the feeling that the terrorists are suddenly facing something new.

The President was at his best when he defended the American response to 9-11 and aggressively discredited the urban legends that surround the attacks of that day.

He attacked cultural stereotypes on both sides. He did not temper American support for Israel to meet the sensibilities of his audience. He found the right tone on Afghanistan. His defense in Iraq was muted and contradictory, but for anyone who has followed Obama’s public pronouncements, stating that Iraq is better off without Saddam is progress.

Obama was at his most eloquent when he called upon the Palestinians to abandon violence, providing vivid and contrasting allusions of the treatment of slaves and blacks and their path toward equal rights through non-violence.  Similarly, Obama’s call for institution building by the Palestinians recognizes a reality on the ground that cannot be papered over or swept under the rug on the road to a viable Palestinian state.

But in so many ways, the speech in Cairo had all the hallmarks that transfixed American voters in 2008. A rhetorical anthropologist of Obama speeches would recognize his well-worn oratorical devices almost immediately.

Obama’s delivery was superb, serious and fact-filled. He called for inclusion, restraint and respect. He offered the hope of common ground and a brighter future. And as he did time and again during the campaign, by expressing platitudes of candor, he seems to have accomplished something by simply stating the obvious.

And of course, there was something for everyone to go home with in this speech, another Obama hallmark. People hear what they want to hear. What else can explain positive comments by both Hamas and the Israelis?

Obama’s mastery of the written word makes what and how he expresses himself more important, and this, in turn, makes other matters, spoken and not in Cairo, a matter of concern.

Consider first that Obama’s speech was alarming in its apparent relativism and moral equivalency.

In discussing the divide between the US and Muslim world, Obama referenced colonialism and the Cold War.1 It bears pointing out that the US never colonized a Muslim country and it was the Soviet Union under Stalin that banished religion, including Islam.  In the game of global chess that was the Cold War, it was the same Soviet Union that invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

In fact, during the Cold War, the US maintained good relations with the Muslim states of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia. After 1973, the list expanded to Egypt and Jordan.  The US has had a constructive relationship with the mixed population of Lebanon since the 1950s as well as North African countries, with the exception of Libya after Kaddafi’s ascension.

Absent from the President’s speech was the sustained American effort the help Muslims. After the Gulf War in 1991, the US/UN set up safe havens for Shia Iraqis who came under attack by Saddam’s regime after the war. During the Bosnia wars of the 1990s, the Americans came to the aid of the Muslim minority. Perhaps at odds with his genetic humility on the foreign stage, but Obama could have talked to exceptional accomplishments of America to the good of the world in the last 200 years.

Also, either by an act of omission or commission, the President’s defense of Jews and harsh words for Holocaust deniers came right before a section of the speech that spoke to Palestinian grievance. In so doing, his address leaves open the interpretation that the systematic murder of six million Jews is comparable to the contemporary plight of the Palestinians.

This error is compounded by Obama’s failure to reference that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza provided a crucial, initial opportunity for Palestinians to demonstrate their capability to govern themselves, build good faith and institutions. Instead, Gaza became a scene of anarchy, chaos and eventually a military base for militant Islam to attack Israel.

Palestinians do face daily humiliations, large and small, social and economic, as the president said. But it does not come without context.

In another startling, relativist contrast, the President compared the plight of Muslim women to the continuing struggle for equality by American women. The comparison borders on the hilarious if it wasn’t part of such what was billed as a consequential speech. I wonder what Kim Gandy and the NOW crowd think of this comparison.

And the master of words apparently accomplished a paradigm shift in American policy without anyone really noticing.

Consider the flow of the speech begins with the centuries’-old enmity between Islam and the West and runs through today, with increasingly restricted language that ends with this sentence:

“Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims.”

Extremists, not “terrorists.” Exploited, not “reacted to.” Small but potent minority… Does anyone remember the Palestinians on the West Bank chanting and cheering after 9-11?  How many of the invited guests listening to Obama believed America got its just desserts on 9-11?

But through his words, Obama has subtly reframed the debate by marginalizing 9-11 as an isolated attack, and not the start of a larger struggle. And this thread is tied to two other points in the Obama speech.

First, Obama implicitly accused the America before his arrival of overreaction and torture in response to 9-11; a policy he ended amid an implied apology. Second, Obama framed the debate on democracy initially through a false premise; that the US  previously overtly supported impositionof democracy as a matter of policy.

That is simply not true as any reading of the record indicates. Obama’s own words later in the speech regarding the kinds of government that the US would support ironically could have been lifted from any text of the Bush administration after 2005, where the idea of governmentaccountable to the people was the major theme.

On a more regional basis, Obama tacitly recognized Israel’s nuclear capability through Iran’s nuclear program in the context that no single nation should decide who has nuclear power. He used his own pronouncements in Europe, calling for a nuclear weapons free world to justify the US commitment to this goal, for the first time casting possession of nuclear weapons as an issue offairness.

The apparent change is naïve to the point of dangerous.

And to this policy shift we add the things that Obama did not say.

Absent anywhere in the text was the word “terrorist.”  Apparently if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck it isn’t a duck; at least not in Cairo.

Perhaps far more interesting, were the words Obama failed to use in describing his own country. In his defense of America, Obama utilized only one ideal, equality. “We were founded upon the Ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words.”

He said nothing about individual freedom and liberty, the right to dissent.

Further, in assessing where America and the Muslim world share common principles, Obama mentioned  only “justice, progress, tolerance, and dignity.”

Understood in full, it is a rather breathtaking shift in policy, presented as he did during the campaign, under the cloak of moderation.

Of course no Obama speech is complete without a little sanctimony. Obama created controversy at home by supporting a civilian, Iranian nuclear capacity to generate electricity in the speech; ironically something that you won’t find anywhere in the Waxman-Markey Cap N Trade bill back at home.

And Obama was practically righteous when he said, “Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.” He noted that the US government had gone to court to protect the right of women to wear the hijab and “punish” those who would deny it.  He politely declined to note what happens to people who carry bibles, or deity-forbid, a Star of David, in a Muslim country.

If only the US government felt as strongly about prayer in schools, and community sponsored crèche’s at Christmas time.

Obama said, “We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”Christian conservatives should hold him to that as the President builds out his agenda in the coming years.

Overall, the Cairo speech fits neatly with Obama addresses in Europe and Turkey and from the trail of words comes an emerging narrative for Obama; that is a world view that distinctly separates America before Obama from the one he intends to create.

This is not simply about Bush, though Bush is on the receiving end of most of the immediate attacks.  No, this is a broader liberal narrative on America as too corrupt, selfish, indulgent to be trusted as a force of good, and that it must adjust it station and acknowledge its sins.

The America before Obama was arrogant, egotistical, militaristic, unilateral, tone deaf, easy to offend, long to remember and quick to dictate; in sum, too big for its britches.

Obama’s America is none of these things.  It is as if we are living in  Year 1AB (After Bush).

Consider that Obama trumped his aid program for Afghanistan without mentioning the billions that the Congress – Democrats and Republicans – have approved over the last seven years for development assistance for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

In discussing the Israeli Palestinian problem, Obama made no reference to any US peace initiatives which go back as far as Nixon-Kissinger, and saw the triumphs of the Camp David Accords and the now defunct Oslo peace process that brought the PLO out of the shadows.

The New America is humbler, more willing to listen, more likely to take criticism and admit its own failings and mistakes; so long as they occurred before 2009.

Above all, Obama seems intent on retiring American exceptionalism as a narrative of American power; where, despite our enormous influence in the world as the strongest power, we are really just like any other nation, just another alphabetized country between Albania and Zimbabwe, with much more to explain.

The problem is, to be a global leader, you can’t be just another country on the roster of the UN. You cannot continually straddle issues or spend endless amounts of time describing how well you understand the issues at hand.  At some point, you have to play the cards your dealt. Obama seems to believe he can deal a new hand just by showing up with rhetorically different approach, an approach that allows America to be both humble and decisive in world affairs.

You can’t have it both ways.

In the final analysis, there is this.  If the grand scope that Obama has laid out for Muslims in Cairo follows a path from speech to practice that Obama has initiated domestically from campaign to governance, everyone should brace for the unpleasant shocks to come.

The speech was bold, positive and necessary.  The policy that comes after may be a bitter pill.

1. POTUS Speech 6-4-09


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