Friday, June 05, 2009


Pres. Obama's Cairo Speech

Well, I wasn't expecting this...

As Professor Glenn puts it: "They told me that if I voted for McCain, we’d get a President whose speeches on Islam were praised at Hot Air and criticized at the HuffPo. And they were right!"

I think the Huffington Post is getting increasingly disillusioned with the President not living up to the expectations set in his campaign. (That's natural; I doubt anybody could live up to all people expected of Barack Obama.) Contrariwise, Hot Air has pretty low expectations of him in the first place, so a speech with some teeth in it was a pleasant surprise.

Surprisingly for me, I agree with many of the criticisms of the Huffington Post. President Obama was in Cairo to address the Muslim world, and he spoke mostly in platitudes. That's not how that part of the world works. In a democracy, it can make sense to address the people; in a repressive regime, speaking to the people accomplishes nothing, unless you're also prepared to help jump-start a revolution.

To get results from a dictatorship, one must address the leaders and decision-makers... and they will tend to respond better to actions than to words. (They are very adept at speaking words that mean nothing.) This President Obama did not do; more on that in a minute.

I also noted a few things in the Cairo speech that took me by surprise. (I'll confess that I read it; I didn't watch it or listen to it.) In a classic example of "being all things to all people", President Obama stated flatly "I am a Christian" to a Muslim audience -- just moments after speaking like a Muslim when he said "As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.'" He's including himself as a recipient of wisdom from the Holy Koran; to a Muslim who wants to believe that Obama is also a Muslim, this amounts to vindication.

Let me add that this is not just classic Obama-speak, but it's also typical of the Koran. If you want to preach that the Koran is a book of peace and tolerance, quote this: "...If anyone killed a person not in retaliation for murder or to spread mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind. And (likewise) if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the whole of mankind" (Surah Al-Maaida 5:32). If you'd rather preach jihad, this might be more to your liking: "Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, torture them, lie in wait and ambush them using every strategem of war." (Surah 9:5)

It's a clever tactic in both cases. If you tell all sides what they want to hear, everyone will be happy... at least, until you actually have to do something. (It's a lot harder to please everyone with actions than it is with words.) Unless your audience goes to the trouble to seek out the contradictions in your words, you will have pleased everybody and promised nothing.

This has worked very well for President Obama, because his audiences are usually so pleased when he agrees with them that they don't notice when he agrees with their opponents. And it works for the Koran as well; out of a sense of tolerance, we feel obliged to accept the Koran as the Holy Book of the Muslims, meaning that we must take it as a whole -- the parts that preach peace and the parts that preach jihad.

But if one looks carefully, one sees that the words are just words. President Obama didn't promise to do anything as a Christian, or as a Muslim; he said that advancing the cause of understanding between the West and the Muslim world was a priority for him, but he didn't say how he planned to achieve it. Similarly, he spoke some strong words about the need to recognize Israel and the rights of its citizens (on the one hand), and the intolerable effects of occupation upon the Palestinians (on the other hand); but speaking as President, as the ultimate spokesman of America in the world, he didn't promise to do anything about it. He said a lot about what Israel must do, and what the Palestinians must do, and what the Arab world must do, but he didn't take the responsibility of action for himself.

Perhaps the President thinks that, by inspiring the people of the world to think as he does, the cause of peace will be advanced. If so, he'd do well to remember that actions speak louder than words... and lots of loud words are not a substitute for action.

I haven't taken the trouble to dissect the speech in detail; others have, and have been less than pleased. Yid With Lid has some harsh things to say about the details; others saw the bigger picture.

UPDATE: Mark Steyn, as is his wont, does not mince words: "That sound you heard in Cairo is the tingy ping of a hollow superpower."

UPDATE 2: I hate to display my geekish credentials, but I must...

Readers of Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy may remember the charismatic character Salvor Hardin. At one point, early in the first book, he follows several politicians around, records everything they say, and then feeds it all into a device called a "semantic analyzer", which eliminates all the double-talk, self-contradictions, and meaningless statements.

The results are illuminating. One politician, as I recall, thereby has his words reduced to: "You'll give us what we want, or else we'll beat the hell out of you and then take it anyway". And another politician, once he had the meaningless goo filtered out of his words, was left with... nothing. As Hardin explained: "Gentlemen, in five days of talks, this man didn't say one damned thing -- and he said it so that none of you noticed."

I have long wished for such a device. Certainly it would have proved useful in Cairo.

(The Asimov quotes are off the cuff; my apologies if I'm misremembering.)


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