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The Not So Golden Mean

The best way to view President Obama’s speech in Cairo is to understand the way Obama views himself and the rhetorical devices he employs. In this case, the key to unlocking Obama’s speech may be Aristotle’s golden mean, the search for a mid-point between extremes. Obama’s rhetorical template is an increasingly familiar one: he gives voice to one side of a dispute and then the other. And Obama — our philosopher-king, the Voice of Reason in an unreasonable world — interprets and arbitrates these disputes, putting them in just the right context and arriving at just the right solution. Or so we are led to believe. The trouble is that Obama’s approach at times distorts history and mistreats our closest allies.

The President’s Cairo speech begins with a discussion of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — “tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.” Each side holds responsibility for those tensions. But if you read Obama’s text carefully, you will come away with the impression that one side in particular — the United States and the West — is much more at fault than the other. Tensions have been fed, according to Obama, by Western colonialism, the mistreatment of Muslim-majority countries during the Cold War, and by” the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization [which] led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.” Those missteps and injustices, Obama implies, all tilt the scales against America and the West.

On the other side of the scale there are mistakes for which the Muslim world is responsible. And here the blame lies with “violent extremists” who have exploited those (Western-created) tensions in “a small but potent minority of Muslims.” This led to the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians. But even that eventually counts against America, at least in this respect: militant Islamic attacks “led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.”

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