Parsing Obama

So, here comes Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, to decidedly mixed reaction.  I am not going to dwell at the moment on the specifics of his Israel policy (for a very pessimistic assessment see this post by Ron Radosh, though there are many Israel supporters who do not share Ron’s endorsement of the settlements).  I also agree that the part of the speech dealing with Iran was rather weak, full of lofty sentiment signifying nothing.  But some of the scathing criticism directed at Obama strikes me as rather misguided.  For instance, Charles Krauthammer found it to be infected by “self-absorption”; but was Obama’s talk of the aspects of his personal story that were relevant to the issues at hand all that different from what, say, Ronald Reagan did?

Does it really matter that Obama never used the words “terror” or “terrorism,” referring instead to “violent extremism”?  The power of the T-word has been somewhat diluted by overuse; besides, to many (non-terror-sympathizing) Muslims it is undoubtedly a red-flag word, due to their common belief that the West looks at a Muslim and sees a terrorist.  I think it was a positive thing to say, and drive home the point, that terrorism by any other name would smell as foul.

The President’s powerful affirmation of the memory of the Holocaust, and firm condemnation of Holocaust denial, was a key part of the speech.  Some believe that, by transitioning immediately to the plight of displaced Palestinians, Obama drew a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian displacement.  Re-reading the speech, I see no such equivalence (though someone who wants to believe the two tragedies are equal could read it that way).  I think Obama was simply saying that the Palestinians have their own history of suffering which cannot be denied.  Should he have said more to acknowledge the Palestinian (and Arab) leaders’ own responsibility for perpetuating this suffering?  Probably.  Did he go too far in suggesting that each side’s view of the conflict was equally valid?  Probably.  But here’s an important point: the speech was intended as outreach to the Muslim world.   To say “Israel is 100% right and the Palestinians bear 100% of the blame,” even if it were true (and I don’t believe it is) would not be very productive.  Confronting a Muslim and Arab audience with the fact that Israel’s stiff-necked stance has something to do with “the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond” is a pretty good start.

So was Obama’s very strong iteration of the fact that the Palestinians’ use of violence has undercut the moral authority of their cause.  On the Commentary blog, Contentions, Jonathan Tobin vigorously objects to Obama invoking the American civil rights movement as a parallel, pointing out that “Israelis have not enslaved Palestinians.”  But I don’t think Obama was, as Tobin suggests, equating the situation of Palestinians with that of American blacks under slavery and segregation; rather, he was contrasting their methods of fighting for their rights.  Interestingly, David Horowitz (hat tip: Ron Radosh) hails Obama’s analogy and compares it favorably to Condoleezza Rice’s use of a similar parallel.

David Frum, whom I greatly respect, takes issue with Obama’s positioning of himself as “an impartial judge” between America and the Islamic world, criticizing negative stereotypes on both sides rather than championing American interests.  He accuses Obama of “taking an equidistant position between the country he leads and its detractors and enemies.”  But first of all, as some of Frum’s commenters pointed out, the whole point is that “the Islamic world” as a whole, hopefully, is not our enemy.  (Obama was not talking about the Al Qaeda.)  And secondly, once again, this was an outreach speech.  “We’re right, you’re wrong” is not going to get us very far.

I am particularly baffled by Frum’s comparison of passages in Obama’s speech dealing with wrongs done to America in the name of Islam and wrongs done to the Muslim world by America.  First passage:

I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet Al Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

Second passage:

[T]ension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.

According to Frum,

When addressing grievances expressed by some Muslims, the president spoke understandingly and sympathetically. … When speaking of the wrongs done to the United States by people acting in the name of Islam, however, the president mentioned nothing but the bare fact. To that subject, he brought no emotion at all.

Say what?  Are we looking at the same text?  I think Obama brings far more emotion to the passage about September 11.  To talk about the “ruthless murder” of men, women and children “who had done nothing to harm anybody” is not just a bare-bones statement of facts.   Here, Frum’s criticism seems subjective and biased, and this only detracts from the very valid points he makes further down about Obama’s inadequate presentation of issues between the U.S. and Iran.

Finally, there’s this from Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute:

[T]he president made clear that he is not a believer in “democracy,” explaining that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Apparently, governments must only now “reflect the will of the people”—through mob rule, Mr. Obama? Through elections that deliver 98 percent of the vote to one man (or 88 percent in Mubarak’s case)? Are we now so cowed that we are ashamed to proselytize for the system of liberty that has delivered the greatest freedom and prosperity? Or are we only against “imposition”—the language used by dictators everywhere to protect their own power?

This strikes me as a serious misreading of Obama’s comments about democracy, which I think are worth quoting in their entirety:

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

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. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But 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. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Mere rhetoric?  Maybe.  But this is rhetoric that hits all the right notes.  I don’t see how it can be construed as support for authoritarianism or mob rule.

Again, I don’t think the speech was perfect in every respect.  (I will make a separate post on Obama’s comments on women’s rights, which I think deserve a B-minus at best.)  I agree that some of its policy implications may be worrying.  But there was a lot of good in this speech, and a lot of things that were important to say in a Muslim country.   He mentioned, for instance, the suppression of other faiths, including the persecution of Christians, in many Muslim countries.  And, given that Obama ran on an anti-Iraq war platform, I (as a very ambivalent hawk) found his comments about Iraq to be quite encouraging:

Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. …

Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq’s sovereignty is its own. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012. We will help Iraq train its Security Forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.

Firstly: Obama, who has often been mocked as apologist-in-chief, did not apologize for the war.  He did not plead guilty, on America’s behalf, to a crime against the Iraqi people (as many leftists would).  He did not repudiate the view that the U.S. invasion liberated the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, though he also suggested that this could have been achieved by less violent means.  (Perhaps.)  He reiterated our committment to security and freedom in Iraq, and the fact that we have not seized its territory for our own interests.

That deserves to be commended.

For a very positive conservative view of the speech, see this post by Ed Morissey.

(Cross-posted to


Filed under anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, Barack Obama, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Middle East, Muslims, religion, religious freedom, September 11, terrorism, US foreign policy, West

4 responses to “Parsing Obama

  1. Pingback: Barack and the women « The Y Files

  2. Pingback: Ron Radosh » Obama’s Speech: How Should Conservatives View It?

  3. jerry

    I am generally favorable towards Obama, and I scratch my head wondering why you even read the folks you are reading expecting anything other than a partisan, bitter, everything taken at its worse, criticism (but better you than I).

    However, I do want to point this out to you: Write-Your-Own Obama Speech How does Obama keep up his hot streak of speeches? The Daily Beast analyzed his most famous speeches to crack the code behind the president’s rhetoric. Our step-by-step guide for turning even the most divisive debates into an inspiring call for unity.

  4. Pingback: Obama’s Moscow speech: A- « The Y Files

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s