sábado, junio 06, 2009

Barack Obama's 10 mistakes in Cairo


Barack Obama's speech in Cairo was quite a moment. I say moment, but it lasted some 56 minutes and contained more than 6,000 words. Too long. Yes, he said a lot, ensuring to some extent that it could be all things to all people - almost everyone can take something away from it to feel good about.

That doesn't mean, however, that it was an effective speech. It was, of course, very well-delivered and contained many fine phrases. But we know that Obama can do this and he's subject to the law of diminishing returns. The more I think about it, the more potentially problematic I find the speech. Here, for starters, are 10 mistakes he made:

1. "Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail." With this phrase, Obama dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States occupies a special place among nations. Obama clearly doesn't see the United States as a "Shining City upon a Hill" or its history, constitution or way of life giving it special qualities or responsibilities in the world. When asked in Strasbourg whether he reduced "American exceptionalism" - a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville - as mere patriotism. "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." By trying to reduce US status to that of just another nation, Obama diminishes the role of American leadership.

2. "I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk." While watering down America's status in the world, Obama has consistently sought to elevate his own status to that of a universal, healing symbol as if his very being, his inspiring life story, his Muslim background, his father from Kenya, his childhood spell in Indonesia will square the circle in the Middle East. If only it were as easy as that. This comes across as naive, even pandering.

3. "Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.... On the other hand..."

Yes, Obama spoke strongly and unequivocally about the six million Jews who were exterminated in the Holocaust. But he immediately appeared to equate this with the suffering of Palestinians who have "endured the pain of dislocation...endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation...the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable". This comes dangerously close to moral equivalence.

4. "The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality." Probably the worst passage of all. By highlighting the most superficial aspect of women's rights is the Muslim world, Obama dramatically underplayed the oppression women face. It's not people in the West who believe women who cover their hair are less equal, it's countries in the Middle East that dictate that all women are less equal. From the Left, Peter Daou, who grew up in west Beirut, rails against the weakness of Obama's stance on human rights: "With women being stoned, raped, abused, battered, mutilated, and slaughtered on a daily basis across the globe, violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of religion, the most our president can speak about is protecting their right to wear the hijab?" From the Right, Stephen Hayes, points out: "In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive. In Iran, they're stoned on suspicion of adultery. In Pakistan, politicians publicly defend 'honor killings' of young girls who have the audacity to choose their own husbands."

5. "I am honoured to be in the timeless city of Cairo..." It's one thing to go to the heart of an autocracy in the Middle East and to deliver hard turths. It's quite another to describe President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as a "force for stability" and then go to Cairo and soft pedal on human rights abuses there. Many Arabs battling for democracy and freedom in their own countries feel undermined by Obama's choice of venue. Spengler of Asia Times goes even further: "By addressing the 'Islamic world' from Cairo, Obama lends credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other advocates of political Islam who demand that Muslims be addressed globally and on religious terms."

6. "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."In its essence no neo-con from the Bush administration would disgree with this. But the "although" betrays that Obama is trying to have it both ways - he's glad that Saddam's gone but he's against the war that removed him. Yes, it was a choice. Sometimes hard choices have to be made. Yet Obama seems to think that he can just split the difference and please both sides.

7. "No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point." No single speech - but perhaps a series of speeches, Obama implied. He later said that "words alone cannot meet the needs of our people" but Obama's preference for words rather than actions is clear. For all its grand vision, this speech contained no concrete proposals.

8. "And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles. 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year."

The "just as" is troubling because it goes dangerously close to equating what happened on 9/11 with the alleged alteration of American principles afterwards. Like the "on the other hand", it's sloppy speechwriting. Obama was eager to use the t-word - torture  (though not another t-word - terror). By constantly referring to torture - which, even if one concedes that it was used was done so used in very limited circumstances and ended several years ago during the Bush administration - Obama buys into the narrative that America is to blame. Obama conveniently ignores the fact that torture of a far more heinous nature than has ever taken place at Guantanamo Bay occurs almost routinely in countries across the Middle East - and the victims are often more dissidents rather than suspected terrorists. Once again, Obama highlights the closure of Guantanamo Bay - though he has yet to resolve where to transfer its inmates.

9. "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." Obama talked about democracy but he failed to speak about the democratic government of Iraq. Whatever one thinks of the US invasion in 2003, that is a tremendous achievement and one brought about at a massive cost in American and Iraqi lives. It's an achievement that needs to be supported and built on, not least to demonstrate to other Arab countries that democracy in the Middle East is possible. Yet Obama seemed to want to ignore Iraq because he opposed the invasion.

10. "For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat." 

After 9/11, the Bush administration - with the full bipartisan support of Congress - cracked down on terrorist financing via some groups that posed as Islamic charities. So what's Obama hinting at here? As David Frum puts it: "It is not at all hard for American Muslims to give to legitimate charities. What has been made difficult is giving to terror groups. Is the president suggesting he will relax those restrictions?"


Certainly, there were aspects of the speech that were praiseworthy. Rich Lowry, no Obama fan, summarises some of them: "He extolled America as 'one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known'; pledged we will 'relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our country'; condemned Holocaust denial as 'baseless, ignorant, and hateful';  said 'it is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus'; insisted that 'the Arab-Israel conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems'".

There's been lots of breathless commentary today about the "historic" moment and the power of Obama's oratory. In time, however,  the speech will probably be remembered, at best, for its high-flown aspirations rather than the achievements it laid the foundations for. Or, at worst, for the naive and flawed approach it foretold.