Even if you didn’t like the president’s speech, there were certainly elements to applaud. He did not shy away from defending the American-led mission in Afghanistan. His moving commentary about the Holocaust was absolutely necessary in a part of the world where so many people deny its existence. Those were the good parts. Unfortunately, these noble sentiments were accompanied by a series of worrisome ones.
We’ll get to the substance of the speech in a moment. But first, it is worth dwelling on its tone--the detached quality of it. As David Frum writes:
...in Cairo he exhibited the amazing spectacle of an American president taking an equidistant position between the country he leads and its detractors and enemies. It is as if he saw himself as a judge in some legal dispute, People of the Islamic World v. United States. But the job to which he was elected was not that of impartial judge, but that of leader and champion of the American nation.
Obama has said that he doesn’t want to “impose” American values on the rest of the world. Fine. But there are arguments that are worthy of passion--about democracy and the rights of women and against the use of terrorism in resolving political differences. If the president of the United States hopes to defend his side--indeed, our side--of these arguments, cool logic is not enough. In fact, logical arguments about these matters are not credible unless backed by some urgency. I know the president believes that he can elegantly float above it all, playing the role of global healer. But if he doesn’t forcefully make the American case, then who will? And who would believe it?
I wish the president had said more about Iran and its nuclear program, an issue that should be central to any grand analysis of the region like this. But he barely even talked about the Mullah’s aspirations. Indeed, the ambiguity of his expectations for Iran stood in stark contrast to the forthrightness of his case against Israeli settlements. "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," Obama said, without mentioning just who it is that is "threatening Israel with destruction." Similarly, Obama soft-peddled his description of the Iranian regime itself. "Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians," he said. Actually, Iran has done more than just "play a role" in international brigandage and murder. It is a leading state-sponsor of such activity. Why not just say Iran has "taken hostages" and "killed" U.S troops and civilians?
Another disturbing strand of argument in the speech: "No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons." This is a line basically conforming to the rhetoric and worldview of the Mullahs. Even in a fantasyland where no nation has nuclear weapons, the statement that "no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons" would not make sense: In such a pre-nuclear situation, the United States would optimally play such a role. But in the world in which we live, wouldn't it clearly be better, for instance, if South Korea, and not North Korea, had nuclear weapons? And as to the line’s specific context: Israel's unchallenged possession of nuclear weapons actually contributes to regional stability. Obama's rhetoric here gives credence to the complaint that Iran’s desperate quest for nuclear weapons is somehow justified by a legitimate fear of a nuclear attack by Israel. It sets up a false moral equivalence between the legitimacy of a democratic state’s possession of a nuclear deterrent, and the nuclear aspirations of a theocratic regime openly calling for the destruction of that state.
Perhaps, the president had his reasons for pulling his punches. Maybe the Iranian “election” is on his mind. But tone matters. And he has set the tone of the debate in a deeply unsettling way. There are many countries and movements in the Middle East that foster extreme pathologies and that work overtime to undermine our interests in the region. Yet, the one country the president seems intent on pressing with the greatest intensity is our most unbending ally in the world. Very strange.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.
By James Kirchick