I have my own issues with Obama’s recent appearance in Cairo, but one criticism I find rather baffling is that his speech implied moral equivalence between the United States’ actions and the policies of Middle Eastern dictators. Here’s Legal Insurrection:
[OBAMA] “The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights.”
[LEGAL INSURRECTION] The “some in my country” constitute the majority of the population who have legitimate fears of Islamic extremism and terrorism. By setting up the equation this way, Obama is creating a false equivalency between those who fear attack and those who attack.
[OBAMA] “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”
[LEGAL INSURRECTION] Promoting democracy is not the equivalent of imposing a system of government. The false analogy of promoting democracy to imperialism leaves those who seek freedom in places such as Iran left to fend for themselves. Stating that “we will support” certain universal freedoms, as Obama does in his speech, means nothing without actual support. So much for hope.
Leaving aside the degree of distance between foreign adventurism undertaken by the United States and foreign adventurism undertaken by other countries, I think this confuses juxtaposition with straightforward moral equivalence. Nowhere in Obama’s speech does he suggest that these actions are equally objectionable, only that both sides have made mistakes and have much ground to make up, which strikes me as a perfectly reasonable assessment of the current state of affairs in the Middle East.
Acknowledging one’s own faults before criticizing someone else also happens to be a fairly common rhetorical trope. If, for example, I want to convince my roommate that leaving three bags of trash on our floor is a bad thing, I might first acknowledge my own failure to, say, empty the dishwasher. This has the effect of disarming Kevin’s potential objections – which, incidentally, may actually induce him to pick up the trash – but it certainly doesn’t imply that our sanitary failings are somehow equivalent. In a debate, this tactic is frequently referred to as a strategic concession. It is, in other words, a commonsensical approach to argumentation that may actually help convince the other side to see things your way.
I have grave doubts about Obama’s ability to actually convince the Muslim world to see things our way, but diplomacy is an incremental process, and it shouldn’t take an associate clinical professor of law to see that focusing entirely on the failures of Islamic countries in a speech at a major Islamic capital is a pretty counter-productive approach inter-state relations.
Most of the objections to the speech raised along these lines strike me as people searching for a way to attack Obama for acknowledging America’s faults, as if there is no place for self-criticism in public diplomacy. This is not only inconsistent with the give-and-take of international relations – who, after all, wants to endure endless lectures harping solely on their own faults? – it’s also downright baffling. As with Obama’s so-called “apology tour,” there seems to be an assumption among certain quarters on the Right that presidents should never criticize the United States abroad. Why must we be so sensitive? A confident nation ought to be able to acknowledge its faults while simultaneously defending its achievements.
UPDATE: Daniel Larison also gets it:
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.