Obama in Cairo: Not far enough

The president achieved something. But he failed to reach the one audience that really matters.

President Obama's speech in Cairo was well-crafted, widely praised, and largely unsuccessful. The president declined to conflate al Qaida with any and all Islamic resistance and revolutionary movements, a form of lazy propaganda that dominated the public rhetoric of his predecessor. (He should be given credit for that much.) But the speech was least appealing to the audience he was trying most to reach–disaffected Muslims who, while drawn toward radicalism, are still willing to respond favorably to real changes in U.S. policy.

Obama omitted much and, in his descriptions of global interdependence, continued the implicit justification of American interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Global interdependence, along with America's role in managing global affairs, has been a major theme in Obama's foreign policy statements since the early days of his presidential campaign. These themes reflect his liberal internationalist background, and explain almost all of Obama's foreign policy views. They also provide ready-made arguments for American intervention throughout the world.

Just as President Bush absurdly linked the fate of American liberty to liberty around the world, President Obama has made the same implausible claim for American security. He did it again in Cairo. To skeptical ears, especially in countries where our interventions have been most arbitrary and violent, this sounds like a recipe for an endless series of military actions in foreign lands—a more polite version of "we are fighting them over there, so we don't have to fight them here."

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Even if one is inclined to accept Obama's analysis and his prescription for active American involvement around the globe, it should be easy to see why a skeptical audience would react poorly when the president said: "Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail." For a president who claims to prize empathy, he certainly failed to put himself in the other's shoes when he composed that line. It should be obvious that many in his target audience see the present world order as the elevation of America and its allies over them. Indeed, many of the more accommodating, diplomatic parts of the president's speech can easily be read as attempts to reconcile his audience to this unwelcome arrangement.

Perhaps the most significant part of the speech was his implicit call for universal adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Like his remarks on world order, Obama's comments on nuclear proliferation will surely be met with disbelief and annoyance.They will not only disturb the Netanyahu government, but could also embarrass the newly re-elected Congress government in India, which staked vast amounts of political capital on its nuclear deal with the United States.

Obama said, "No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons." Yet his audience knows full well that the U.S. government attempts to do just that. Obama's desire for a world without nuclear weapons is admirable, but even the most sympathetic listener knows this is unrealistic. Instead of devising a new mechanism for regulating the rise of new nuclear states, such as a bilateral arrangement modeled on the U.S.-India agreement, the president seems intent on pushing for adherence to a treaty that three of our nuclear-armed allies won't even join. The treaty's credibility is not enhanced by the facts that violations carry no significant consequences, and that events of the last decade have rendered it obsolete.

The omissions in the speech are a result of doing exactly what Obama said we should not—ignoring the sources of tension. He failed to address how his stated abhorrence of "the killing of innocent men, women, and children" can be compatible with his full endorsement of Israeli military actions in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza earlier this year.

No one expects outright condemnation of Israel from the president. But some acknowledgment of the costs and counterproductive nature of the Israeli campaigns would have gone a long way toward demonstrating that change is possible not just in tone but in actual policy. At the very least, it would have demonstrated some awareness that almost no one in his target audience justifies these events as he does.

Obama is constrained in many ways by political reality. These issues are treacherous to navigate and risky under the best circumstances. But his failure even to try guarantees that his grand gesture in the spotlight will fall short of its intended effect.

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Daniel Larison has a Ph.D. in history and is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He also writes on the blog Eunomia.