Obama's Isms Schism
Terrorism, Zionism, Jingoism—President Obama’s Cairo speech flips the ism script.
In Cairo, President Obama declared that Islam and America are compatible. He took aim at violent extremists. But he wasn’t as clear about bridging the gap between Israelis and Arabs.
There is a hadith in which The Prophet said, “...you should not be extremists, but try to be near perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded ...”
And Ice Cube once called it a good day when “mama cooked the breakfast with no hog.”
With his singular ability to communicate across cultural borders and to employ a distinctly African-American sensibility toward Islamic touchstones, last week in Cairo, President Obama made his case to the Muslim world that their political, economic and social aims are not at odds with those of the United States.
It will be a while before we’re able to judge the effectiveness of Obama’s “I feel your pain, too” diplomatic approach in one of the most painful geopolitical regions of the world, but going forward, our collective understanding of the three “isms” crucial to our foreign policy in the Middle East have been permanently altered when considered in the context of Obama’s aggressively compromise-seeking worldview."
Although “terrorism” is political violence and not political philosophy, those organizations that justify the killing of civilians to further their political goals—terrorists—have been ideologically cornered by Obama’s rhetoric. The president placed the U.S. and the West on the side of nonviolent Muslims: “The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few,” he said. And in the same speech, he preserved his prerogatives as commander in chief to deal with terrorists militarily by affirming that he would “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.”
He did it by merely shifting from the loaded term, “terrorist,” to the expression “violent extremists”—a temperate, clinical description of al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamaat-e-Islami, Abu Sayyaf and other groups that is impossible to argue with—yet Obama avoided the derisive tone of his predecessor while leaving no doubt about exactly who and what he was talking about.
Much of the post-Cairo analysis has focused on Obama’s insistence that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” in the West Bank. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer called it “perverse to make this the center point of the peace process.” But this position was already long-standing U.S. policy.
The real issue is whether Obama, in an effort to be even-handed, failed to properly frame the history of the Israel-Palestinian peace process and the nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
In an attempt to boost the Palestinian cause while also reaffirming the “unbreakable” nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance, Obama’s language was uncharacteristically muddled. He spoke of Palestinian “aspirations” for a sovereign nation while drawing a parallel with Israel, saying, “The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” But the problem is that Israel isn’t an aspiration—it’s a country.
Sure, Israel “aspires” to be at peace with its neighbors, but its national legitimacy has to be connected to its historical (even biblical) claims to its land—claims that, as David Wolpe notes in the Washington Post, “the Islamic world has lately taken to denying.”
If he’s not careful, Obama will unintentionally wind up making the core anti-Zionist case. The speech pegged U.S. support for Israel on the impetus for a Jewish homeland in the wake of the Holocaust. But in this formulation, Palestinians—who aren’t implicated in Nazi Germany’s murders—would effectively be called on by the world community to donate a Jewish state. With that logic, the case for Arab-Israeli peace is weakened, not strengthened. Obama would have been better off emphasizing that “Palestine” was most recently a British colony (consisting of what is now Israel, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) that was historically inhabited by Jews and Arabs, and that Israel is the Jewish state which resulted from the U.N.’s apportionment of that land.
Two years ago, Republican strategists were trying to figure out how to use the president’s middle name—“Hussein”—as a coded put-down. Now that seems not only ad hoc and mildly racist, but foolish and self-defeating as well. Americans chose the “skinny kid with a funny name” anyway, and it has paid immediate dividends in terms of Obama’s ability to reach out to Muslims and others in developing societies around the world.
Even skeptics of the eventual ability of Obama’s Middle East outreach to produce results are hard pressed to deny that Obama is history’s most savvy diversity hire—America’s not-so-secret weapon in the so-called “war on terror.”
President George W. Bush’s consistent characterizations of Middle East conflict as a conclusive throwdown between good and evil left no room for reconciliation between the Islamic world and the West. And while Osama bin Laden got exactly what he wanted out of Bush after 9/11—an overreaction—bin Laden has never seemed smaller than he did in denouncing Obama’s Cairo remarks, trying to assert that “Obama has followed the footsteps of his predecessor in increasing animosity toward Muslims ...” Sorry, but no.
Obama’s speech didn’t outline any fundamental changes in U.S. Middle East policy. Instead, he summoned religious teachings as a way to shift the debate away from competing pretenses of righteousness and toward a mediation of tangible political interests. Paradoxically, yet effectively, with the Talmudic observation that “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace,” Obama positioned God on the side of a secular superpower in order to reel in political Islam.
Whether or not a Middle East entente is imminent, it will, from now on, be more difficult for U.S. antagonists to simply dismiss Americans as imperious, disrespectful or uninterested in reconciliation because an offer is now on the table.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.