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Purple Prose of Cairo

The trouble with conservative critiques of Obama’s Cairo speech

June 09, 2009
President Obama speaking in Cairo(Getty Images)
President Obama speaking in Cairo(Getty Images)

President Obama’s speech in Cairo last week, titled “A New Beginning with Muslims,” has already been thoroughly scrutinized for both its substance and the likely effect it had on its intended audience, which one would be forgiven for thinking consisted entirely of ecstatic Western liberals and their wary conservative counterparts. Many on the right have characteristically chided Obama for his frequent dips into moral equivalence. Even as he condemned Iran’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians,” for example, he offered as a counterpoint the U.S.-abetted overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian president Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. This marked the first occasion in which an American president copped to the fact in public, and some observers, including Abe Greenwald at Commentary, found it to be a heaping dollop of catnip to the mullahs of the Islamic Republic (not to mention a too-convenient gloss on just how democratic Mossadegh was upon attaining power).

There’s also a fair criticism that Obama’s history was somewhat shaky. He referred to the “tolerance” exhibited by Islam in Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. But Cordoba is a part of Andalusia and had been reconquered by Christian Spain in 1236, a good two centuries before the forced expulsion and murder of most of Sephardic Jewry. (Muslims, who were tolerated for a spell longer, may have helped Jews find shelter or safe-crossing, but is this really what Obama meant?) And while it’s true that John Adams, in signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, secured the first recognition of the United States by a foreign power—Morocco—Obama left out of this cozy footnote the fact that the treaty marked the formal end of years of piratical kidnapping of sea-faring Americans, and the confiscation of their goods and vessels, by the Ottoman-ruled Barbary States. (There is a chilling passage in Michael Oren’s book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to Present, in which Adams and Thomas Jefferson are told by the pasha of Tripoli that there could be no peaceful coexistence between nations because “[i]t was… written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged [the Muslims’] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”)

Nevertheless, as Greenwald’s colleague Max Boot—the most intriguing neoconservative writing on this administration’s foreign policy—points out, this was a speech delivered to a proximate Muslim audience with a global one in mind, and with the intention of winning that global audience over to, if not exactly a pro-American position, then less of an anti-American one. For all the gauziness in Obama’s rhetoric, there were some diamond-hard statements about rejecting terrorism as a means of “resistance,” not judging a true democracy by a state’s mere capacity to hold elections (a crucial point, as Obama was delivering his remarks in the capital city of a dictatorship that masquerades as a democracy), and enfranchising and educating women in Arab countries. It’s true that Obama was deficient in standing up for half the population in the Middle East, which is held in a state of second-class citizenship if not outright servitude. David Frum’s sharpest point against the speech was to note that Obama’s endorsement of the choice for Muslim women to don the hijab in Western countries was an instance of an American president “intervening in an internal Muslim debate–and not only intervening, but intervening on the more reactionary side!”

Obama’s tendency to acknowledge, or apologize for, America’s past sins has been mistaken for supplicancy: how dare he project anything other than unremitting confidence in the world’s only superpower? Doesn’t he know that self-criticism is viewed as weakness by those hostile to that superpower’s interests? Letting aside the fact that Obama’s election was itself an act of national self-criticism, such thinking reflects a curious evolution of the conservative case against him as he graduated from candidate to president. Where conservatives used to deride his prospective foreign policy and cry, “Words, words, words,” they now pore over every detail of his language, while tacitly endorsing his actual foreign policy. (On Obama’s Afghan “surge” strategy, Bill Kristol’s new neoconservative think tank, The Foreign Policy Initiative, was exultant.) Sometimes their only criticism of him is no criticism at all: Greenwald’s earlier post was titled, “Now He Even Sounds Like Bush.”

As for perceived weaknesses, recall that George W. Bush ran in 2000 with the purpose of exercising “humility” abroad, and at no point after 9/11 and his subsequent about-face as an interventionist did he point out some of the more uncomfortable facts about Islam’s role in human rights abuses. Much as we may pine for Orwellian standards in speechmaking, no international platform can be articulated by a U.S. president without cant or breezy euphemism. Indeed, Obama’s greatest problem may well have been a category mistake. There is no such thing as an umma—that is, a greater Islamic community—in the 21st century, as Lee Smith at Slate shrewdly notes. Islamic identities are today forged as much by irredentist nationalisms as they are by Koranic injunctions, and so any presumption of a global religion is bound to do more alienating than ingratiating.

But as for those sections of the Cairo speech which turned a gimlet eye on the American past, Obama did no more than speak the truth, or tread where others have to lesser fanfare. Condoleeza Rice first compared the situation in Palestine to the American civil rights movement, and Gershom Gorenberg’s recent cover story in The Weekly Standard implicitly did as well by asking why it was that there was no Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Had Obama really wanted to placate Iran, he would not have repudiated Holocaust denial or quoted from the Torah.

As for his status as a “rock star” to Bedouin and sheik alike, Michael Crowley at The New Republic, who witnessed the speech, observed that “[w]hether for cultural reasons, or the awkwardness of instant translation, applause was sporadic and muted. (His call to halt Israeli settlements, for instance, went strangely unnoticed.)” This is one way of saying that the loyal opposition at home misses a more fundamental point of Obama’s style abroad: he can drop his world-citizen C.V. and heed the call of the muezzin all he likes, but so long as Bin Laden still loathes him and U.S. troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’ll never be confused in the Middle East for the capitulationist commander-in-chief some of his more feverish enemies at home wish he were.