By Peter Feaver
For my part, I thought the speech was a workmanlike effort laboring under the impossible burden of great expectations. I am keen to credit the President Obama's good intentions and, for the most part, I think he did what he had to do. I did not see any howlers -- egregious mistakes that would torpedo the effort. Nor did I see any "aha's" -- moments of rhetorical epiphany when the president (or his speechwriters) captured perfectly a hitherto elusive truth. Perhaps the real news of the speech is that there is no news. In a time and a world where there is too much news -- especially these days in that region of the world -- perhaps the absence of news is a good thing.
I was reading closely to see if the president would commit the mistake so often committed by pandering politicians and academics, especially those who are tone-deaf on religious matters: trying so hard to flatter Muslims that one insults the faith of Christians (and others). I think the speech avoided that, though I will be interested to see how many people agree with me. Certainly one could find missed opportunities in this area in the speech. Indeed, one could code the entire section on "religious freedom" as one big "missed opportunity."
But it is perhaps unfair to expect Obama to really "tell it like it is" in a speech whose primary purpose was to begin the delicate process of translating Obama's celebrity status into a diplomatic asset in the ideological struggle formerly known as the global war on terror. Yes, Obama treads exceedingly lightly on the global persecution of Christians, or the role of Arab political elites in promoting myths about 9/11 or Jew-hating and Christophobic myths. Yes, the president trades in some false if convenient rhetorical subterfuge of his own -- the bogus "war of choice vs. war of necessity" dichotomy, or the statement (surprising from a self-proclaimed "student of history" on the eve of the anniversary of the invasion of Normandy) that "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." Yes, there are some carefully chosen code-words and phrases that have the effect of creating false moral equivalencies: For example, does Obama seriously believe that tax rules on charitable giving impose upon American Muslims religious constraints comparable to, say, what evangelical Christians endure in Saudi Arabia?
Yet, there are also carefully chosen phrases that represent progress, sometimes over rhetoric from the Bush administration and sometimes over Obama's own earlier campaign rhetoric. I think "Muslim communities" is better than "Muslim world," for instance. And I was rather surprised to hear him say, "I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein," the circumlocution that most Bush administration people use to describe the positive side of the ledger on Iraq -- so surprised, in fact, that I am willing to give him a pass for sullying that thought with the utterly tendentious caveat that followed: "I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible." (Is there anyone so blinkered that they believe supporters of the Iraq war would disagree with that bromide?)
And there are enough gestures to true candor -- for instance, calling out the cowardice of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, or the forceful restatement (without credit, of course) of President Bush's rhetoric about universality of democracy's appeal -- that will be useful if the speech, as I respect, receives rave reviews. To the audiences giving the speech a standing ovation, those snippets of candor can be put to good use. To misappropriate another bit of scripture, be ye not just hearers of the word but doers also.
We can and should view this speech as a step forward. A modest step, perhaps, but in the right direction.