Deep down, it was shallow

Doug Feith identifies what I think is the core problem with Obama’s Cairo speech — it was too must-y:

The speech was unsatisfying in a standard way. It was a “must-y” talk in which the president, instead of addressing problems analytically, merely asserted time and again what other people “must” do. Palestinians “must abandon violence.” Israelis “must take concrete steps” to improve life for the Palestinians. The Arab states “must recognize” their responsibilities. Muslims “must” close the fault lines between Sunni and Shia. Mr. Obama used the word more than 30 times.

The problem with “must” is that it kills analysis. A good policy discussion brings forward a sensible set of goals and well-considered assumptions and then weighs the pros and cons of various courses of action that aim to achieve the goals. But the promiscuous use of “must” short-circuits all this. . . .

In proclaiming what the Palestinians, Iranians, Israelis and Muslims generally “must” do, Mr. Obama is not elucidating anything about them. He is telling us about himself – his own attitudes, preferences and sense of right and wrong. That’s interesting, to be sure, for he is the president of the United States, but it doesn’t show understanding of what’s driving foreign leaders to act as they do or what the United States can do to influence them.

In short, the speech accomplished Obama’s likely purpose — to cause many to praise Obama. But “it provided dim illumination and no serious analysis – and, far worse, it exposed superficial thinking by the president about important subjects.” Invoking an old political quip, Feith concludes that deep down, the speech was shallow.


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