President Obama spoke with his usual charm, polish and eloquence in Cairo this morning. These virtues are formidable and, no doubt will win him, if not our country, some friends. But this speech was, like so many of his utterances since taking office, tarnished by a desire to be all things to all people. To be Barack Obama is to be, as he says, a person who can see all issues from all sides and defend American interests while at the same time being everyone’s best friend. He sees himself as someone who can achieve Olympian detachment. Speaking of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he says: “If we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth.”
But there is more than one type of blindness. The search for the truth is not merely an exercise in which all grievances are considered the same. To assert the truth of the Holocaust is appropriate — if unfortunately necessary when addressing an Arab audience — as is calling on the Palestinians to “abandon violence” and to cease “shooting rockets at sleeping children” or blowing up old women on buses.
But the problem with this conflict is not that both sides won’t listen to each other or give peace a chance. That might have been a good point to make prior to the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993 when Israel recognized the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and began the process of handing over large portions of the area reserved by the League of Nations for the creation of a Jewish National Home for the creation of a Palestinian equivalent. But Israel offered these same Palestinians a state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza as well as part of Jerusalem in 2000 and again in negotiations conducted by the government of Ehud Olmert just last year. So, the problem is not that the Israelis don’t want the two state solution that Obama endorsed in Cairo. Rather, it is, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in Washington only a week ago, that the Palestinians aren’t interested in negotiating with Israel.
Even more obnoxious than this refusal to see that the truth about the conflict isn’t to be found through an even-handed “plague on both your houses” approach is his comparison of the Palestinians’ plight to that of African-Americans in the United States before the civil rights era. Israelis have not enslaved Palestinians. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians rests on the latter’s unwillingness to come to terms with the former’s existence. The plight of Palestinians in Gaza is terrible but it is a direct result of their own decision to choose war over peace, not a lack of understanding on the part of the Jews. Going to the Middle East while ostentatiously avoiding Israel and picking a fight with its leadership sends a message that will resonate throughout the Arab world. His signal that America is now an impartial broker rather than Israel’s ally can only encourage a Palestinian people that continue to reject peace.
Another disappointment was his treatment of the threat from Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. Again, he re-stated the history of our problems with Iran in a context of moral equivalence. While he has stated elsewhere — and promised as much during his run for office — that he will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear capability, such plain talk was absent in Cairo. Nowhere did he say plainly that Iran must stop its nuclear program or call upon other nations to join the effort to restrain Tehran. That was a major blunder and a missed opportunity to rally the Arab world that fears Iranian nukes as much as the Israelis, to step up on the issue before it is too late.
Though he made a number of important points about fighting terror, religious tolerance and women’s rights and democracy, the speech was constructed and delivered as a series of moral equivalencies that undermine both the search for peace as well as the equally necessary drive to reform the Islamic world. As a statement of philosophy as well as a proclamation of American values it was as morally unserious a speech as an American president has ever made.