The Obama Administration’s response to protests against the Iranian regime’s contempt for even its own thin facade of democracy has been markedly muted and tentative; even the French Government has spoken out more clearly against the fraudulence of the presidential election and the mullahs’ suppression of the Iranian people than has President Obama. One conclusion we can draw from Obama’s failure to offer support for the Iranian people against their theocrat masters is that it eviscerates the entire point of his Cairo speech to the ‘Muslim world’.
In and of itself, there were already many reasons to be concerned about the Cairo speech, as Mark Steyn, Charles Krauthammer, Martin Peretz, Andrew McCarthy and Erick Erickson have all detailed at length – its factual distortions and omissions of history, its false equivalencies, its acceptance of the legitimacy of treating “the Muslim world” as a collective political construct superseding national interests or popular sovereignty, its contrast between Obama’s deferential words towards Muslim nations with his meddling in the affairs of the world’s lone Jewish nation. In the speech, Obama embraced the role of a defender of the Islamic faith, even going so far as to speak of where Islam “was first revealed,” a statement that explicitly endorses Islam’s claim to theological truth. Obama proved the old saw that a liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in an argument: on every issue on which there is a pro-American (or pro-Western or pro-Israeli) set of factual assertions and arguments and an opposing set of anti-American (or anti-Western or anti-Israeli) factual assertions and arguments, Obama accepted the anti- premises and ignored the pro-. Thus, as Peretz details, he accepted the notion that the State of Israel owes its legitimacy entirely to European guilt for the Holocaust, and wholly ignored the pre-1945 history of Zionism. Thus, he accepted the notion that the U.S. properly bears the baggage of historical guilt for the sins of Europe, while refusing to claim credit for the blood Americans have shed repeatedly for Muslim peoples. Thus, Obama blamed tensions between Muslims and the West on “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims” – even though many of the core regions of the Islamic heartland (such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Levant) were either never Western colonies after the rise of Islam or were only briefly under British control between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Second World War. As a whole, while the speech’s historical and political narrative departed from the pro-American view of the world, it dovetailed neatly with the views of Egyptian-raised scholar Edward Said, a professor at Columbia during Obama’s time there and mentor to Obama’s friend and Palestinian activist Rashid Khalidi. (Perhaps that’s one reason why Obama chose Cairo as his location and why he’s taken every available opportunity to offer petty diplomatic snubs to the British in particular.) In short, Obama spent the speech accepting, rather than challenging, the views of his audience, and leaving to someone with a job other than President of the United States the task of defending the United States against the arguments made against it.
There is, of course, an argument to be made, and that has been made by Obama’s supporters, in favor of giving such a speech. Certainly, if you want to persuade people, it’s easier to do if you start your remarks by buying into their view of the world, even if this requires the embrace of demonstrable untruths. (The definition of diplomacy is the art of not speaking the truth). By setting himself up as the arbiter of two contending parties – America and the Islamic world – and above both, Obama banked on using his own personal popularity with Muslims to establish a separate brand identity, the Obama Brand (count the number of times the word “I” appears in the Cairo speech, as well as the references to his own biography), with a base separate and distinct from the American Brand with all its historical associations. As Andrew Sullivan expressed the argument, back in 2007, for the value of having Obama as a distinctive representative for America rather than an advocate for its values or a defender of its record:
A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man – Barack Hussein Obama – is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.
The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies is his record on the Iraq War. He is the only major candidate to have clearly opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, negotiating with neighboring states, engaging America’s estranged allies, tamping down regional violence. Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never had suspicious motives toward Iraq, has no interest in occupying it indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful consequences of long-term occupation.
All of this raises a question. If the Obama Brand is to be sold to Muslim populations in various nations, to what purpose? What do we hope to accomplish by having an American President who is more well-regarded for his identification with the views of Muslims than is America itself? If Obama’s charm initiative can pay some dividends to the United States, when do we collect them?
The Iranian crisis reveals the hollowness of the entire effort. Here we have a situation in which the truth is obvious: the Iranian people, a majority Muslim population, are being oppressed by their government. And in which the ideal outcome is obvious: anything that weakens the control of the mullahs over Iranian society is a positive, and with the legitimacy of the regime now staked on the victory by the odious Ahmadenijad, any outcome that undermines that victory is a step in the right direction.
Under a presidency, like that of George W. Bush, that single-mindedly pursued American interests and American values, the answer would be to speak that truth and lend public support to the Iranian people against the mullahs. That doesn’t mean offering explicit support for Mousavi, the dissidents’ candidate who is only slightly less a tool of the mullahs than Ahmadenijad, but it does mean acknowledging the legitimacy of the people’s grievances. The downside if President Bush took that step is the risk of a backlash: that Ahmadenijad in particular could rally anti-American public support against the protestors by portraying the whole enterprise as an American puppet. Reasonable minds can differ on whether that backlash would be a serious problem (certainly the people behind the Iron Curtain always approved of Ronald Reagan speaking the truth about the oppressive nature of the regime they lived under), but it’s the cornerstone of the Obama supporters’ argument for why the President should keep out of this one.
But what if President Obama did it? If Cairo was about anything, if it was worth anything, if the Obama Brand could ride to the aid of the interests of the United States in a situation where a more explicitly pro-American president could not, Obama should be willing and able to put that brand to work in a situation where the obvious objective truth is that he was acting to favor the interests of an Islamic population. He should be able to draw on his personal favorability in a crisis when something real is at stake.
There are two possible answers to why Obama hasn’t done that. One is that when push comes to shove, the Obama Brand in the Muslim world isn’t actually worth anything when there are real stakes. That people everywhere are savvy enough to know that nations and peoples don’t change their inherent interests simply because they’ve hired a new front man, that personalized diplomacy doesn’t do anything to budge the basic dynamics of international relations, and thus that efforts like Cairo are just meaningless piffle in terms of their practical effect on America’s ability to pursue its foreign policy objectives when there are opportunities presented to alter the status quo in our favor.
The darker possibility is that Obama views strengthening, rather than weakening, the Iranian theocrats as America’s predominant foreign policy objective in this crisis, and thus he would regard action on behalf of the Iranian people as counterproductive. That case is laid out by Robert Kagan and Francis Cianfrocca. Low an opinion as I have of Obama, I’d prefer not to believe that he actually wants the mullahs to win, although Kagan and Cianfrocca make a compelling argument at least that Obama’s strategy prior to this crisis was to offer more American-conferred legitimacy to the mullahs and Ahmadenijad as a carrot in arms control talks (the opposite of the Reagan strategy).
In either event, this much is clear. Cairo was only words, in a situation when words alone would mean nothing, cost nothing. When words could make a difference, President Obama won’t speak them. The Iranian people aren’t deemed worthy of change they can believe in.