Obama’s misguided rhetoric

Charles Krauthammer rips President Obama for “the moral equivalencies and self-flagellating apologetics” of his Muslim outreach rhetoric. Among other examples, Krauthammer cites these:

On religious tolerance, he gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, then lamented that the “divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence” (note the use of the passive voice). He then criticized (in the active voice) Western religious intolerance for regulating the wearing of the hijab — after citing America for making it difficult for Muslims to give to charity.

Obama offered Muslims a careful admonition about women’s rights, noting how denying women education impoverishes a country — balanced, of course, with “meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life.”

Krauthammer concludes:

Creating false equivalencies is not moral leadership, but moral abdication. And hovering above it all, above country and history, is a sign not of transcendence but of a disturbing ambivalence toward one’s own country.

I think that Krauthammer, to some extent, is misunderstanding what Obama is up to here. Obama is trying, as President Bush did, to induce Muslims to modify their ways on issues such as religious tolerance and women’s rights. He believes he will have more success with this project if he acknowledges that the U.S. is also imperfect in these areas. This is a familiar rhetorical device; there may even be a Greek name for it.

Greek name or not, Obama is quite misguided to think he can “jawbone” Muslims into being more tolerant . And Obama’s confession of Western error will hurt rather than help. Muslims in his audience who are not already disposed in favor of the reforms he urges will ignore the critique of Muslim society and hear only the part about America’s ills. Thus, anti-Americanism will be reinforced.

But it is unfair, I think, to argue that Obama is drawing moral equivalencies or that he is not seeking to advance American interests. Our interests would be greatly served If Obama could pursuade Muslims to become more moderate and more tolerant. The real problem is what Krauthammer correctly describes as Obama’s messianism, which allows him to believe that his words can bring this about.

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