Commentary Magazine


Obama in Cairo

Having just read Obama’s Cairo speech, my reaction is: Not bad. It could have been better. But it also could have been a lot worse.

Steve Hayes is right in noting that Obama could have talked more pointedly about the relative success of Iraqi democracy and the shocking denial of women’s rights in many Muslim countries, which is no way equivalent to “the struggle for women’s equality … in many aspects of American life.”

There were other examples of attempts to build false equivalence between the Western and Muslim worlds. For instance, he said: “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.” Of course most Israelis don’t deny Palestine’s right to exist as a Muslim state as long as it is willing to live in peace, whereas Palestinian leaders have shown no comparable willingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Another example of moral equivalency: “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” That is accepting the (false) narrative of the Iranian Revolution, which holds that America’s role in overthrowing Mossadeq more than half a century ago — a development that would not have been possible had the leftist prime minister not lost support in the Iranian street — is just as bad as the campaign of mass murder and kidnapping that Iran continues to support at this very moment.

Obama also twisted history when, for example, he mentioned how “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” He said: “In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.’ ” That made the treaty sound like a celebration of American-Muslim partnership when in reality it was a treaty whereby the U.S. paid substantial bribes to the ruler of Tripoli in return for a cessation of attacks on American shipping by his corsairs. Tripoli didn’t keep its promises, and the result was America’s first overseas conflict — the Barbary Wars fought against the Muslim states of North Africa.

Should Obama have summarized the real — as opposed to the air-brushed — history? Probably not. His point wasn’t to settle historical accounts but to put the best face forward to the Muslim world, and he did that, while still tactfully criticizing Muslim countries and defending the United States. Some passages that I particularly liked:

The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. …

Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America but its promise exists for all who come to our shores.

I also liked it that the first issue he addressed was that “we must finally confront together… is violent extremism in all of its forms.” And he didn’t mention anti-abortion extremists as an example. He made clear that the “violent extremism” he was concerned about was perpetrated by Islamic terrorists and that “we will… relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.”

I liked his attack on Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites who are pervasive in the Muslim world “Denying that fact [of the six million Jews killed] 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.”

And I liked the fact that he put in a Bush-like plug for democracy:

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

In the course of talking about democracy Obama even mentioned discrimination against Copts in Egypt (“Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s”). This was the extent of his (indirect) criticism of his host, the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Perhaps he should have said more about Egypt’s denial of basic human rights to its people as Bush once did. The problem, however, is that if you talk about human rights in Egypt, the question becomes: What are you willing to do to back it up? Personally, I thought the U.S. should have made Mubarak pay for such outrageous actions as the jailing of liberal opposition leader Ayman Nour by cutting his subsidies. But there was no appetite in the Bush administration for such action and there isn’t in the Obama administration either. If we are going to support the Mubarak regime, it makes sense to soft-pedal criticism of it — a point that even Bush tacitly acknowledged in his second term.

I realize that the Obama speech isn’t going to satisfy those (like me) who once thrilled to Bush’s unapologetic pro-democracy rhetoric but, for all of Obama’s rhetorical sleight of hands and elisions, I thought he did an effective job of making America’s case to the Muslim world. No question: He is a more effective salesman than his predecessor was. Which doesn’t mean that his audience will buy the message.

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