After nearly two and a half years of exercising what many believe to have been a cautiously pragmatic approach to the Middle East, President Barack Obama’s “Arab Spring” speech clearly suggested he believes it is time to try something new. “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” the president said. Obama’s resolve to take a step back from the conventional realpolitik that has governed U.S. policy in the Middle East has recently led the White House to conclude that it’s time, in the words of one senior presidential aide, “to lay out some principles.”
And that is exactly what the president did in his Arab Spring speech. Repeatedly invoking the mantle of universal values, staging a dogged defense of “inalienable rights,” and enlisting the righteous historical forces of the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement, Obama set forth an idealistic path in such a resolute manner that conservatives, unable to control their nostalgic impulses, could not help but observe that the president was sounding more and more like his predecessor George W. Bush. With one big difference, that is: Whereas the former president—by his own admission—was a “gut player” who had primarily relied upon his instincts to formulate ideals, Obama, the former law professor, has always counted much more on the power of ideas.
A closer look at his new ideas, however, reveals a distressing philosophical flaw. Framed by two seminal rhetorical exhibitions—the Cairo speech of June 2009 and the State Department speech last month—the evolution of Obama’s approach to the Arab world continues to oscillate between diametrically opposed philosophical polarities that cannot be adequately resolved. The first one, as laid out in Cairo, espouses a multicultural engagement with the world that embraces an array of separate but equal values. The second, so eloquently displayed two weeks ago, subtly discards this same multicultural bent only to replace it with a categorical reaffirmation of “universal rights.” The unbridgeable logical gap that divides these two speeches—and their binary perspectives about what constitutes truth—also reflects the fundamental philosophical contradiction underpinning the president’s unfolding Middle East strategy: How do you convincingly stand up for a set of universal values while at the same time denying the legitimacy of their universalism?
Obama’s memorable speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo two years ago this week was one of the most humble, respectful, and ultimately unavoidable foreign policy speeches ever given by an American president. In Obama’s undisguised attempt to herald “a new beginning” with Islam and disassociate his presidency from the stained legacy of his predecessor—the controversial war in Iraq that Bush initiated—Obama departed from Bush’s unwavering belief in the supreme virtue of American values. Instead of extolling freedom and democracy, Obama offered elaborate accolades for Islam that were essentially meant to afford it a similar moral and historical legitimacy to our own ideals—suggesting that while Western and Islamic values may differ, they were still equally valid.
In discussing the need for governments that “reflect the will of the people,” Obama conceded in Cairo that “each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people,” and added that “there is no straight line to realize this process,” before clarifying that “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone” and insisting that “no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other.” The philosophical implications of the speech were quite evident: By acknowledging that each nation produces its own set of principles according to its own particular circumstances, Obama was also admitting that there was ultimately no single criterion with which to evaluate multiple systems of value and meaning. In other words, he was implying that we could agree to disagree on the normative solutions to existential questions, since none of us actually possess the right answers.
It is not surprising that such a flexible philosophical approach spurred conservative critics to accuse the president of multiculturalism and to accordingly label him an “illiberal multicultural relativist.” For all the lingering ambiguity and confusion that such terms continue to generate, they do share an unequivocal repudiation of the universal legitimacy—and supremacy—of Western Enlightenment thought and its inherent beliefs in individual freedom, political equality, secularism, and democratic government. And although Obama has always acted in a nuanced manner that defies easy ideological labeling, his carefully crafted Cairo speech and the correspondingly deferential rhetoric he has chosen to use when engaging the Arab world suggest that he has shared to some extent in this repudiation—at least until recently.
What makes the Arab Spring speech remarkable is the fact that the president’s previous sympathies for the “common principles” that America shares with Islamic and Arab cultures seemed to dissipate beneath a resounding rhetorical defense of the universal legitimacy of Western ideals. Although still emphasizing that the Unites States “must proceed with a sense of humility” and conceding that “not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy,” Obama steadfastly avowed that “we can and we will speak out for a set of core principles,” explicitly declaring that “the United States supports a set of universal rights”—a historically fraught term that had been conspicuously absent from the Cairo speech. The president’s repeated references to “universal rights,” “inalienable rights,” and “the self-determination of individuals,” as well as the sanctity of women’s rights and religious freedom, were all aimed at reaffirming the universal validity—and moral superiority—of core Western values.
Obama also chose to conjure the experiences of 1776 and the Civil Rights era last week and to quote that timeless Jeffersonian line that historically unites them—“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” By declaring that the core American values indeed constitute “self-evident truths,” Obama was essentially also implying that anything contradictory must necessarily be false.
Rather than display a philosophical coherence or even a theoretical consistency, what these carefully divergent speeches suggest is a fundamental contradiction that lies at the heart of the president’s emerging Middle East strategy. The multicultural tones of the Cairo speech and the undeniable universalism proudly exhibited last month are not complementary or symbiotic but rather competing. If you indeed believe that equal rights for women are indisputable, you cannot then concede that patriarchal cultural traditions that deny these rights are still legitimate. Alternatively, if you espouse that there is nothing more sacred than individual self-determination then there is no logical approach that allows you to endorse the validity of legal institutions that outlaw the sexual expression of that individuality by severely penalizing acts of homosexuality, as is the norm throughout the Arab world. Finally, if you contend that religious freedom is paramount, you cannot respect or even acknowledge the legitimacy of religious traditions that attempt to brutally subordinate—and eliminate—alternative beliefs, as is currently happening in Egypt, where Coptic Christians are increasingly being assailed by radical Muslims. The broader problem, put simply, is that if you advocate the universal values of Western Enlightenment—which the president clearly did in the Arab Spring speech—you have to then be willing to stand firmly behind everything that these values entail while at the same time explicitly repudiating anyone who attempts to undermine them.
Although the postmodern awakening of the late 1960s that bred multiculturalism may have opened our eyes to injustices latent within Western societies and altered the way in which we have come to engage questions of race, gender, and ethnicity, its continuing hold on the American political imagination may severely hinder the Obama Administration’s success in ushering in the ambitious transformation he described last month, from the Middle East “as it is” to the Middle East “as it should be.”
As the Arab Spring continues to consolidate and expand, the pressures placed upon the United States to take a stand and pick a side will inevitably only mount. At some point, the president will have to halt his juggling act and decide whether certain values are not just preferable but superior to others. It is one thing to respect the religious and cultural traditions from which Sharia law, Arab tribal identity, and patriarchal authority have sprouted. But once these traditions begin to threaten the vitality and sustenance of the very freedoms and rights that this Arab Spring is attempting to secure—and they will—Obama won’t be able to continue to maintain his unstable balancing act between universalism and multiculturalism. If there is any chance of transcending the sordid status quo and creating a new Middle East, the president must also be ready to unapologetically admit that there are still many things that the Arab world can—and must—be willing to learn from us.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.