David Bromwich writes: Compare what Barack Obama said in Jerusalem on March 21 with what he said in Cairo on June 4, 2009 and you find many similarities. Both were greetings by a recently-elected American president to a people who had come to doubt the worth of such a communication. In both cities, the improbable event was made credible by words expressing the most generous good intentions, and concluding with a proclamation of large hopes.
The Cairo speech carried two announcements with practical implications. First, “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Second, the president assured his Muslim audience that they would soon see evidence of his determination not to be at war with Islam. The first promise he failed to keep. On the second, the returns are not all in: the Iraq war is over but drone assassinations, favored by this president, have built up a new kind of war by the U.S. in the Arab world, and Obama’s presidency has done more to increase the likelihood of war than to improve the chances of negotiation with Iran.
Obama’s Middle East speeches of 2009 and 2013 were equally flattering to his audience on the chosen occasion. The ground of his respect for Muslims in Cairo was the authenticity of their religious faith and tribal roots. The ground of his respect for Israeli Jews was their religious and tribal roots and their national success. In the past, American presidents would have made this a secondary concern. The usual point of such a visiting speech is to admire the presence of liberty and basic political rights in the host nation (to the extent that these exist) and to ask the leaders and the people to advance the cause. Obama, in a cultural emphasis that was new, admired the Muslims in Cairo for being Muslim. Four years later, he admired the Israeli Jews in Jerusalem for being Jewish.
In fact, Obama went further in the case of Israel. He said in his speech of March 21: “while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea.” Many apparently free but—-as our president has now judged—-actually not truly free American Jews will wonder what could have been in his mind when he committed himself to this straightforward endorsement of the Zionist idea. Can we imagine the president of the secular United States saying anything comparable about an Islamic nation? Pragmatic considerations aside, what prevents him from saying that “Shiite Islam found extraordinary success in many parts of the world but its dream of national realization has attained its full expression in Iran”? [Continue reading…]