Friday, June 05, 2009

Obama speaking to the Muslim world

There was much that was good in Obama's Cairo speech yesterday. Just the fact that an American president is being welcomed and dlistened to by Egyptian students and Muslims from around the world is an encouraging moment. His advocacy for religious freedom, women's rights, freedom of speech, education, and economic development were necessary. I hope they resonated with his audience.

But it strikes me as patronizing to list the contributions of the Arab world when that list stops centuries ago. Arabs need to get beyond celebrating their greatness from a millennium ago and focus on how their forms of government have stifled economic progress for their masses of people for centuries.

He also sets up this moral equivalence between the Israelis and Palestinians that is distasteful. When he talks about the Palestinian refugee status for 60 years, why not mention that it is their fellow Arab states that have denied them citizenship and kept them as refugees for all this time. He chided Hamas, but failed to drive home that Hamas was given the opportunity to rule in Gaza without the Israelis and they blew that opportunity in order to pursue violence against their Fatah opponents and against the Israelis rather than to build up institutions to help their own people.

Charles Krauthammer notes the false humility of Obama's speech.
President Obama repeatedly insists that American foreign policy be conducted with modesty and humility. Above all, there will be no more "dictating" to other countries. We should "forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions," he told the G-20 summit. In Middle East negotiations, he told al-Arabiya, America will henceforth "start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating."

An admirable sentiment. It applies to everyone -- Iran, Russia, Cuba, Syria, even Venezuela. Except Israel. Israel is ordered to freeze all settlement activity. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton imperiously explained the diktat: "a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions."
He goes on to explain why this opposition to natural growth on Israeli settlements is a false issue. And Krauthammer points out the lack of honesty in Obama's detailing of recent Palestinian history.
In his much-heralded "Muslim world" address in Cairo yesterday, Obama declared that the Palestinian people's "situation" is "intolerable." Indeed it is, the result of 60 years of Palestinian leadership that gave its people corruption, tyranny, religious intolerance and forced militarization; leadership that for three generations rejected every offer of independence and dignity, choosing destitution and despair rather than accept any settlement not accompanied by the extinction of Israel.

That's why Haj Amin al-Husseini chose war rather than a two-state solution in 1947. Why Yasser Arafat turned down a Palestinian state in 2000. And why Abbas rejected Olmert's even more generous December 2008 offer.

In the 16 years since the Oslo accords turned the West Bank and Gaza over to the Palestinians, their leaders built no roads, no courthouses, no hospitals, none of the fundamental state institutions that would relieve their people's suffering. Instead they poured everything into an infrastructure of war and terror, all the while depositing billions (from gullible Western donors) into their Swiss bank accounts.

Obama says he came to Cairo to tell the truth. But he uttered not a word of that. Instead, among all the bromides and lofty sentiments, he issued but one concrete declaration of new American policy: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," thus reinforcing the myth that Palestinian misery and statelessness are the fault of Israel and the settlements.

Blaming Israel and picking a fight over "natural growth" may curry favor with the Muslim "street." But it will only induce the Arab states to do like Abbas: sit and wait for America to deliver Israel on a platter. Which makes the Obama strategy not just dishonorable but self-defeating.
It is patronizing and deceptive to ignore this history and then to put so much of the blame on Israel.

Peter Wehner has a perceptive post
in which he details all the ways in which Obama seeks a "golden mean" in the major conflicts in which the U.S. is involved around the world. This is the typical Obama posture to seem to recognize the extremism of each side and then seek some middle way to compromise between them. Perhaps this is possible when you're discussing domestic policy, but it sets up a false dichotomy between opponents in world conflicts.
Then there is the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. What is troubling about Obama's account is the moral equivalence he asserts between Israel and the Palestinians is false. It also ignores what Israel is: democratic and lawful, willing to grant rights to its Arab citizens, willing to hold itself accountable for its mistakes, a country of bustling energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and a thriving civil society. Israel is among the most admirable and impressive nations in the world, and that we have ever seen. And all of this despite living in a region that for the most part despises her and in some instances wants to destroy her.

Beyond that, Obama perpetuates falsehoods, including the one that Israelis deny the Palestinian right to exist just as Palestinians deny Israel's right to exist. That is true only in rare cases, and in any event it fails to take into account Israel's many good-faith efforts to give the Palestinians a homeland, including in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered almost all of the territories the Palestinians had asked for. Yasir Arafat rejected the offer and began a second intifada. And in Gaza in 2005 Israel did what no other nation -- not the Jordanians, not the British, not anyone -- has ever done before: provide the Palestinians with the opportunity for self-rule. In response, Israel was shelled by thousands of rockets and mortar attacks. Hamas used Gaza as its launching point. Yet it is Israel , according to Obama, that must make yet more concessions and give up yet more land, as if stopping settlements will fundamentally transform Palestinian attitudes. It will not. The sine qua non for progress is for the Palestinian leadership to make its own inner peace with the Jewish state. If it did, as Jordan has, a Palestinian homeland would surely follow; and if it does not, peace is impossible. Israel has already shown it can make peace with Arab countries and give up huge swaths of land (like the Sinai Desert) if only those nations reconcile themselves to the existence of Israel and cast aside their violent animus toward her.

The suffering of the Palestinian people is real and tragic and needs to end. But the source of that suffering lies with a corrupt leadership and the complicity of other Arab nations. To cast all the blame on Israel is deeply unfair.

President Obama, in his speech to the Muslim world, said he would "speak the truth as best I can." Some of what he said about democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development and opportunity was sound and appropriate. And I will concede, as others have, that it could have been worse -- though that's a fairly low bar to clear. But a good deal of what Obama presented, particularly in the first half of the speech, was a cartoon version of history. In the process, Obama downplayed the achievements of the Arab country we have very strong relations with and placed the most intense pressure on the nation that counts among our closest allies and best friends.
It would have been nice if, in his appeal for an honest approach to the world if Obama could have been less anxious to strike a moral balance between two sides and been more truthful about the differences that have kept the Palestinians in their own horrid situation.