Exclusive: Obama’s Speech Was a Missed Opportunity (Part Two of Two)
by N. M. GUARIGLIA
June 11, 2009
Over-emphasizing Israel’s culpability for the region’s problems was not the only area where President Obama fell short during his speech. He had a chance to vigorously defend the record and reputation of the United States, and unfortunately, he failed. From Iraq, to Iran, to human rights, to women’s rights, President Obama equivocated in front of his hosts, and told them precisely what they wanted to hear.
Rather than calling Iraq a “war of choice,” Obama could have instead emphasized the 17 ceasefire violations committed by Saddam. He could have reminded the Muslim world about Saddam’s attempt to assassinate George H.W. Bush, or Saddam’s invasion and bombing of four Muslim neighbors, and his genocidal slaughter of Muslim minorities. He could have reminded the Muslim world that the Egyptian, Saudi, and Jordanian governments all warned the Bush administration about the dangers posed from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
Given the well-known fact that Obama opposed the war on strategic grounds, his defense of its moral justification would have had credibility, and would have had a positive effect on our national reputation. Instead, Obama talked about the Iraq war in Cairo with the same take-it-or-leave-it ambivalence he employed during the New Hampshire primaries. That’s not “his” war, you see.
President Obama spoke about the “trauma” of 9/11, but stated our response “led us to act contrary to our traditions and values.” This red meat was unnecessary, especially given the fact that many in the audience were well aware of, and are still willing participants in, the continued rendition programs, surveillance programs, the indefinite detention of terrorists, et al, that Obama has silently continued and expanded on from the Bush years.
His moral equivalency on Iran was repugnant. Obama described how 56 years ago, the United States “played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Since Khomeini’s revolution, however, “Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” To compare the amoral necessity of Cold War realpolitik — a Truman-Eisenhower decision from 1953 — with three decades of the Islamic Republic’s war against the West is as weak and morally bankrupt as it gets.
On nukes, Obama said, “I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not.” He does? “No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons,” Obama clarified.
Perhaps Obama could have instead said something like: “In the United States, responsible citizens can own firearms, and irresponsible ones cannot. Therefore, in international relations, responsible democracies with nuclear prestige are not a problem; irresponsible, violent, totalitarian tyrannies with nuclear arsenals are a huge problem.”
On democracy promotion, rather than stating “no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other,” Obama could have instead explained how freedom is not an imposition. He could have explained how Iraq’s democratic government was not installed or “imposed” by the United States, and if it had been, how Iraq’s constitution, cabinet, and parliament would look far different.
Obama continued, stating:
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people… I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
This was a good passage from Obama, but he would have been better off telling the Muslim world the hard truth. Not everyone wants the “equal administration of justice.” Some people want dictatorship. Not everyone wants the “freedom to live as they choose.” Some people want to end that freedom. In fact, most of these people are ironically both Muslim and Middle Eastern (Syria, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, etc.). What a coincidence.
Rather than rushing through the history of our founding, Obama could have talked more extensively about the significance of 1776. He could have talked about America’s unique history, rather than his own. Individual liberty, the separation of powers, and consensual governance are American ideals. Obama could have taken up the opportunity to explain our founding principles, and how these ideals shouldn’t merely be our ideals. That, too, would have done much to help our reputation in the Muslim world.
Atmospherically, the speech was a success. He told his audience everything they already thought they knew. Substantively, however, the speech was a terrible copout.
There was no call for the release of political prisoners and dissidents. There was no word on reforming Islamic doctrine. There was no moral clarity on women’s rights, and no repudiation of honor killings or genital mutilation. There was no blunt language for Iran or Hamas, and no tough love for the Arab world in general.
There was no emphasis on the Islamic world’s brutal treatment of Palestinians, or of polls that show widespread support for suicide bombings and violence in the name of Islam. There was no talk about defending freedom of speech and opposing those who would kill, and have killed, because of an inflammatory movie or cartoon.
There was no word about the rabid anti-Semitism across the Islamic world’s state-run media (there was no talk about state-run media, in general). There was no talk about the prevalent religious indoctrination of young Muslim boys throughout the region. There was no word on the terrorist attacks across Europe and Asia, hardly ever condemned by the peoples and leaders of the Middle East (he didn’t even say the word “terrorist”). There was no talk about the blood Americans have shed in Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to defend Muslims from aggression.
President Obama is a big proponent of finding common ground. That much is clear. But here’s the problem: leadership isn’t always about finding common ground. Sometimes it’s about winning — winning the debate, winning the argument; not ignoring the fact that there even is an argument. At the beginning of their first summit, President Reagan famously told Mikhail Gorbachev, “Let me tell you why it is we distrust you.” He didn’t say, “Let me explain why I think we both should distrust each other.”
Leadership is often about telling people what they do not want to hear. President Obama doesn’t seem to understand this. For a man so confident in his ability to rhetorically persuade and convince his counterparts, this is an unusual characteristic. Obama’s Cairo speech missed an extraordinary amount of opportunities to hold the Muslim world’s feet to the fire. If such groveling is an indicator of how Obama will conduct diplomacy with Iran, we are in for a rude awakening.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is a polemic and essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.