Barack Obama is toying with the idea of making a speech from an Islamic capital within his first 100 days in office. The scuttlebutt is all about finding the right one. (The consensus is Cairo–which is a terrible idea. An Obama speech there would be read as a shameful acceptance of Mubarak’s oppressive rule.) But my question is: what would he say?
The global problems generating from within the Muslim world today are so odious and so obviously self-inflicted that any honest speech on the matter would offend and enrage Muslims the world over. At the same time, because of these very problems, a softball speech about Islam’s current role in global affairs would look like cowardly capitulation. If Obama splits the difference and mixes lukewarm praise with lukewarm condemnation, the stunt will be seen rightly as meaningless.
Obama gives great speeches, and this has encouraged an unwarranted faith in the utility of the medium. No matter how dazzling, oratory is the least effective weapon in the counterterrorism arsenal. If anything, a foreign policy speech aimed at resolving the conflict between the West and radical Islam would give enemies hope that the U.S. is shifting to a less proactive stance, and returning to the more symbolic approach of the pre-Bush days.
One of the more absurd charges leveled at George W. Bush is that he’s led the U.S. on a war against all Islam. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to repeatedly emphasize the idea that the U.S. is at war with a small percentage of antagonists within the Muslim world. Moreover, the U.S. has treated regional manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism on a case-by-case basis — taking out the Taliban with jet fighters, but pressuring Tehran with sanctions, etc. Obama’s search for this generic thing called “an Islamic capital” in which to make a speech would be the first official indication that the U.S. considers Islam itself to be the problem. He should scrap the idea, and put his energy into dealing with the unique problems of Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. Whether or not Barack Obama knows it yet, his ability to move mountains by speechifying hit its career high exactly one month ago, when it got him elected President of the United States of America. The election is over.