Paul posted his first impressions of President Obama’s Cairo University speech–generally favorable–earlier this morning. I agree that the speech was not as bad as it could have been. Obama, perhaps stung by criticism of his European apology tour, went relatively easy on the mea culpas, and parts of the speech were very good. Still, my take is a little more negative than Paul’s.
The biggest problem with Obama’s speech, I think, is that it was not what it purported to be: the beginning of an honest dialogue between the United States and Muslim countries. Obama promised “to speak the truth as best I can,” but in fact he repeatedly went easy on the truth, preferring instead to pander to his audience. What went unacknowledged is the deep dysfunction of most of the Arab world. Repeatedly, Obama seemed to imply that minor issues in the West are on a par with far more significant and deep-seated failures of Arab countries. The overall effect of the speech was more to give Muslims a warm feeling about their history and cultures than to shed an honest light on the reasons for current tensions between those nations and the West.
This lack of candor was most notable in Obama’s discussion of Israel and the Palestinians. I say this not so much because I disagree with some of what Obama said about that issue, but rather because of the prominence he gave the subject. In his recitation of the “specific issues that I believe we must finally confront together,” Israel came second, after terrorism. Implicitly, Obama ratified the idea that giving the Palestinians a state is the key to peace in the region, and an important element in resolving the problems of Arab countries generally.
But this is incorrect. If Obama really were to speak truth to the Muslim world, he would say that Israel ranks nowhere on the list of Muslim nations’ problems. He would say that the nation of Israel could disappear tomorrow and it would make zero difference in the lives of his Egyptian audience. He would say that the Arabs’ unhealthy obsession with Israel and tolerance of anti-Semitism have been obstacles to the development of Arab countries into healthy societies. He would say that the Palestinians could have had a state long ago if they had wanted one, but they preferred their role as victims–the point of the spear that is intended to drive Jews out of the Middle East.
Of course, if Obama really told the truth to his international Muslim audience, his popularity with that group would plummet. Hence his preference for the same sort of triangulating, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand political speech that he gives so often in the U.S. It’s easy to understand why Obama panders to American audiences–it got him elected President. It is not so clear why presenting overseas Muslims with a sugar-coated view of reality serves the national interests of the United States.
UPDATE: Max Boot makes some of the same points I did about historical airbrushing and false equivalence, but in more detail. On balance, though, his assessment is quite positive.
FURTHER UPDATE: The Associated Press publishes an “analysis” of Obama’s speech, and what do they highlight? Israel, of course: “Analysis: Obama’s Islam success depends on Israel.”