Listening to Robin Wright, Ed Rollins and others on CNN discuss the president’s speech, I am struck by the unreality of not just’s the president’s remarks, but also of the commentary surrounding it.
“The Muslim world” is a large number of extremely diverse regimes, some of which are simply totalitarian, others deeply authoritarian and still others very tentative democracies. The idea that they are to be addressed as one audience is as absurd as an address to the Catholic world.
For this president’s still-smitten domestic press, though, even the ordinary curbs of common sense and obvious problems –the empty streets of Cairo because of an order from the government– do not intrude.
Much of the was much of the usual “We are the world, I am the world” Obama oration, but while the inspiring story of President Obama can move voters in free elections, it cannot do much arrayed against the wills of dictators and fanatics.
There are two great objections to the speech. First is its false idea that the ideas within it represent a huge break with the Bush Administration’s policies with regard to Islam. Of course they don’t. George Bush said essentially the same things about the war’s non-religous character on many major occasions. Bush’s allies in the war are Obama’s allies, and Bush’s enemies are Obama’s enemies, because those allies and enemies are opposed to or support the United States, not a particular president. President Obama’s extraordinary vanity as to the power of his own story should continue to trouble realists across the political spectrum. None of the ruthless men who guide our greatest enemies care a whit about where the president was born or who is parents were. They don’t care either about his Muslim ancestors. They hate America. They hated America before George Bush became president and they will hate it after Barack Obama leaves office.
The second biggest objection is to the paragraphs devoted to Israel, which began with incomplete history and theory, and then veered off into the worst sort of moral equivalence:
America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
“On the other hand?” Set aside the president’s inexplicable failure to cite the U.N.’s vote to bring Israel into existence as a modern state which should have then led to a blunt, discussion-ending statement that Israel exists as an independent Jewish state and will always exist as an independent Jewish state, and consider that the president invites comparison between the Holocaust and that which has happened in the Middle East through successive wars waged against Israel by its neighbors since 1948. This last paragraph is a profound betrayal of Israel suggesting as it does that Israel has done to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to Jews, which will no doubt shock many Americans and of course many Israelis while becoming a standard text for the most radical among the Palestinians. It was clearly carefully crafted to indulge Palestinian and Arab narratives about what has happened in the past 61 years while maintaining plausible deniability for the president’s supporters who are also supporters of Israel, but it fails to fool anyone for even a moment. Israelis should finally grasp if they haven’t already that the ground of the American-Israel alliance is quaking beneath them.
The world is the worse for this speech because it was not honest about the situation in the Middle East, not honest about the threat from Iran, not honest about Israel’s deep desire to be allowed to live in peace, and not honest about the determination of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran to destroy Israel and to gain the weapons necessary to do so in an instant.
No speech so deeply dishonest in its omissions or so rhetorically misleading its its assumptions and arguments can do anything other than communicate extraordinary weakness on the part of the United States. It will indeed be a famous speech, for all the wrong reasons.