Having drawn attention to parts of the Cairo speech I found quite lacking, I wanted to address some of the more recent criticisms of it that I have seen. For instance, David Frum lodges a complaint that I have seen expressed several times in the last few days:
But whereas in Philadelphia and Notre Dame Obama was explaining two groups of Americans to each other, 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.
This fails to appreciate fully what Obama is trying to do in all three episodes. Describing any of these speeches simply as attempts to explain two groups to one another is correct as far as it goes, but it is insufficient. The speeches are organized this way, which creates the illusion of a dialogue that Obama is serving to mediate, but to perceive Obama as “detached” and “equidistant” between the two sides is to fall for each speech’s main conceit, which is that retreating behind phrases such as “fair-minded words” or “mutual respect” allows Obama to dodge the hardest questions. In this way, the status quo may be preserved with relatively little controversy. After all, it was not primarily to build a bridge between pro-life and pro-choice Americans that Obama spoke at Notre Dame, but to partake of Notre Dame’s reputation to legitimize his policy views and signal that a major Catholic institution deemed his views normal and acceptable. That Notre Dame willingly played its part in Obama’s maneuver is one reason why the university’s administration has appropriately come in for so much abuse. As ever, Obama puts on a display of respect for opponents to gain ground for his cause and, when necessary, to defuse controversy surrounding himself.
The approach that conservatives find infuriating when directed at them is the same one he was using on Thursday in Cairo: define the limits of the debate, establish one’s own views as the balanced, reasonable center of the debate, invite people from either side to join the ostensibly reasonable center, and thereby marginalize those who continue to ignore or oppose you. What critics such as Frum keep missing, much as many others missed it during Obama’s time at the Trinidad Summit of the Americas, is that Obama is making it much more difficult for other nations to oppose the United States without marginalizing themselves internationally. With respect to the Cairo speech, it does not legitimize or empower fanatics to acknowledge concerns that they have traditionally exploited to their advantage. On the contrary, acknowledging these concerns deprives the fanatics of their monopoly on paying attention and defining the appropriate responses to these concerns. Better still, acknowledging a past event, such as the U.S. role in ousting Mossadegh, steals the power from those who have made use of a real grievance for their own ends. More than this, though, simple acknowledgment of past error allows for a delay and deferral of any substantive change in present-day policy. Ironically, the more unequal the comparison between U.S. actions and those with which Obama compared them, the less substantive change in present policy there will be. Mild displays of humility make real concessions less urgent, and it makes it more likely that they can be avoided entirely. Those who are generally satisfied with establishment policies and the current status quo as usual have the least to fear from Obama, and so it is fitting that they are the ones making the loudest complaints.
While I still think the Cairo speech failed, it failed because significant numbers of persuadable Muslims are not going to be won over by an appeal that urges a sort of satyagraha for the Palestinians at the same time that the bombardment of Lebanon and strikes in Gaza go unmentioned. Obama could have made similar acknowledgments of the costs of these campaigns, and thereby deflected attention from the foursquare backing the U.S. gave to both. Even better, he could have recognized that these campaigns were damaging to American and Israeli interests and benefited no one except for Hizbullah and Hamas, but there was no way Obama was going to say that.
On the other hand, Obama was wise not to do what Frum would have him do, which was to play the blustering cheerleader. We have had years of self-congratulation and championing of the American cause in words, but these have invariably been matched with policies that do not aid or champion American interests. If we must suffer the damage from bad policies, we may as well try to limit the damage with conciliatory rhetoric and Obama’s characteristic nods that are and always have been head fakes designed to throw his opponents off balance.
Update: Given that Dueholm is “invested” in preserving America’s position in the world, it is no surprise that he sees “Obama’s rhetorical embrace of even-handedness and humility as a feature rather than a bug.” If preserving and extending the status quo is what one wants, this is not a bad way to go about it. What continues to puzzle me is why other people who seem to be even more invested in the same thing do not take Dueholm’s view.
Second Update: It was bound to happen. Damon Linker and I agree on something.