Speaking Flattery to Power
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.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Israel and is editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). This is a cross post from his site.
UPDATE: Some other criticism is coming from Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer and CNN’s Jack Cafferty asks whether reaching out to Muslims undermines the U.S. Israeli relationship. And here’s a roundup on the speech.