The Obama Interview

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

The problem with Obama’s Al Arabiya interview (which I wrote about at length elsewhere):

1) It is never wise to contrast negatively American efforts in the region (“dictating”) with those of a Saudi monarch (“courageous”) — one could in theory draw the conclusion that the unelected head of a theocratic autocracy was portrayed more favorably than the U.S. State Department (“the United States”).

2) There is no reason to be apologetic about past U.S. policy or to question recent generic bipartisan initiatives. Worse still, Obama offers little mention that the U.S. in fact has a far better record toward Muslims than does a Europe, China, Russia, etc. (cf. freeing Kuwait, giving help to the Somalis, bombing European Christians to save Balkan Muslims, billions in aid to the Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians, fostering democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, tsunami relief, liberal immigration policy, lectures to Russia about its horrific treatment of Chechnya, helping to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, etc). The problem with the Muslim Middle East transcends what we do, and its pathologies — statism, autocracy, religious intolerance, gender apartheid, tribalism, lack of human rights, and constitutional government — are mostly self-inflicted, rather than the result of American insensitivity. If there is no need for a president to mention all of these obvious and embarrasing problems, then in the same manner there is no need to apologize for U.S. policy.

3) We are now confused about the rules of evocation of Obama’s multicultural identities: during the campaign many learned it was quite illiberal to mention his middle name, his Muslim father, his exotic Indonesian connection, etc. To do so was to suggest that he was perhaps somehow less genuine or properly traditional than the typical square American (although those rules were adjudicated by Obama himself who often drew on “difference” when politically advantageous). But now he seems to be telling the Arab world that they can relate to him, by virtue of his unique identity, in ways they have not with a more stereotyped American president. (Do we wish to go there—as if an Asian president might better connect with Japan or a Swedish-American with Sweden?)

4) We understand this logic that our president can, in Zen-fashion, confound the radical Islamists in a way a drawling Texan cannot. But this is a morass I don’t think a commander-in-chief wishes to venture into, since for too many, in the way the interview went, it almost implies something like: “Trust me and just watch — by distancing myself from your past policy, your past Presidents, and indeed in some sense from many of you too, I can better represent you abroad.”

This may be clever (but not as clever as many in the Middle East who are savvy to it), but it is unwise and dangerous for a President to try such a gambit.

5) I’ll skip the utopian talk about Iran and the Middle East since nothing new was advanced among the rhetorical flourishes, and such a technique of saintly rhetoric and earthly stasis is now well-known.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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