On returning to the White House from Cairo in June, 2009, after giving a speech that he surely hoped would be a historic marker for his presidency, what did Barack Obama talk about to the nation in his weekly Saturday radio address? He took up the issue of health care reform. He made only fleeting mention of his outreach to the Muslim world. The contrast between the two actions captures one of the reasons for Obama’s failure to get any traction in the realm of foreign policy, two years into his first term.
Returning to Obama’s Inaugural Address of January 20, 2009, let’s take a minute to reflect upon his view of that reset button with the world.
“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. . . . Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. . . . Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more. Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”
Encapsulated here is the tension, much remarked upon of late, between realpolitik and vision in our foreign policy, between our penchant for “sturdy alliances” with corrupt regimes and our “enduring convictions.” (No comment for now on the fatuous assertion that America is a friend of every nation.)
Now let’s take a closer look at what Barack Obama and his surrogate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been doing for the past two years to implement those Inaugural promises. More to the point now, how is it that, in the first moment, when it really counted, Obama and Clinton did not step forward in friendship with every man, woman and child “seeking a future of peace and dignity” in Suez, Alexandria and Cairo’s Tahrir Square?
In retrospect, Obama’s brief Middle East junket in 2009 tells the whole story of the larger American failure, in both politics and media, to anticipate the Egyptian revolution. Afterwards, I wrote skeptically about Obama’s Cairo speech because I thought it unlikely that Obama would follow up those beautiful sentiments with any change in the American-Egyptian-Israeli policy on Gaza. And, of course, he did not.
The details of the June, 2009 Cairo trip are significant now. Every bit of documentation reveals that while Obama and his team and his media entourage were physically in Cairo, their minds were somewhere else.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the night before Obama flew to Cairo, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Speechwriter Ben Rhodes and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough took questions from Obama’s traveling press. None of the questions concerned Egypt. Subjects: Taliban extremism, Yemenis at Guantanamo, Osama bin Laden’s recent tape commenting on Obama’s trip to Egypt, an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, the President’s energy message and the texting of the President’s upcoming speech in Arabic, Persian and Urdu.
At the end of the Q & A, McDonough took this question: “There are reports that the U.S. has urged Cairo University to invite members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other human rights groups.”
McDonough replied, in part: “I think the bottom line is that the President wants to have an opportunity to speak to the broad range of political representation in Egypt, but really across the region.”
Two things here are striking: McDonough’s seeming obliviousness to the fact that in the repressive Mubarak regime there was no “broad range of political representation” (unlike, say, in Pakistan), as well as the celerity with which he jumped from Egypt to “the region.”
The next day, June 4, Obama in Cairo repeated the same dynamic. In the light of the recent Egyptian revolution, his speech, in what he chose to highlight, is telling. The thrust of the speech: “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.” He tells “America’s story” and his own story, in which “Islam has always been a part.” He contrasts that with “violent extremism,” which he mentions several times. He talks about the global financial crisis, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel & Palestine, nuclear weapons, religious freedom, women’s rights, education & science, green jobs and the eradication of polio.
President Obama gracefully quotes the Koran; nowhere, however, does he demonstrate any awareness of the specific issues facing the Cairenes who are his audience and hosts. Here is the president we have come to recognize: a man who jumps quickly to the larger perspective and who, perhaps in consequence, woefully lacks any sense of place.
Today it is clear that President Obama and his foreign policy team, as well as the media, took Egypt for granted. The country was a platform from which Obama could address U.S. concerns: fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. (We know now from Al Jazeera’s trove of leaked cables—an important media event all but lost in Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian revolution—that Arab leaders had impressed upon the U.S. that we could not count upon their support for our Iran policy without making progress on Palestine first.)
“I’m very much looking forward in the months and years to come to continuing to consult with the President,” Obama said to Hosni Mubarak after their bilateral meeting at Quba Palace, before Obama went on to Cairo University to give his speech.
Mubarak, too, just like Egypt herself, was an ally we could take for granted.
The Israel-Palestine situation and the possibility of a nuclear Iran continued to be the focus of discussion, as well, first in a roundtable interview Obama did with regional reporters immediately following his Cairo address. Obama got one question about Egypt, and again his reply was telling.
Questioner: “Mr. President, why have you chosen—why did you choose Cairo as the venue for the speech? Because the Arab population [here], after all, make up only about 20 percent of the [world’s] Muslim population—“
The President: “I should have gone to Kuala Lumpur. (Laughter.) . . . My tendency is to go to the source of the problem and not try to avoid the problem. And I think that the source of the problem in this situation has to do with the United States and countries in the Middle East not communicating effectively.”
Here is the problem for a leader who grasps “problems” by their larger geography. We have seen now the consequences for President Obama in his identifying the fault lines in our Middle East foreign policy as ones of communication issues and of America’s and Islam’s misunderstanding one another. However large the vision, its execution always lies in details.
Unlike Nixon’s historic trip to China, for example, Obama’s junket to Egypt was not underlaid with behind-the-scenes preparations and talks and negotiations at the various levels of our diplomatic outreach in contact with counterparts abroad. Nowhere is this clearer than in the sudden decision on the part of the White House for Obama to drop in on King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia before jetting over to Cairo the next day. As we know now, this visit did not go well. King Abdullah was affronted by what he perceived as President Obama’s sudden demands on issues like the two-step peace process and Iran.
The frantic pace of this trip abroad, furthermore, underlines the difficulties for Obama, then and now, in changing our foreign affairs posture. It would seem that a reliance on the charisma of the Obama persona, which always garners a positive if ephemeral response from locals, has been too big a temptation. Just look at Obama’s schedule that week in June, 2009.
Tuesday, June 2: many meetings in U.S.; night flight Saudi Arabia
Wednesday, June 3: meeting with King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia
Thursday, June 4: President flies to Cairo, Egypt
Meets Mubarak at Quba Palace
Tours Sultan Hassan Mosque
Delivers Cairo speech
Departs Cairo for Dresden, Germany
Friday, June 5: Signs Golden Books for Saxony & Dresden
Meets with Angela Merkel
Meets with German delegation
Tours Church of Our Lady
Visits Landstuhl Medical Center (on the to-do list,
since he did not visit after his Berlin speech
as a pres. candidate, July, 2008.)
Departs Ramstein AF Base for Paris, France
Saturday, June 6: Departs Paris for Caen
Meets with President Sarkozy
Visits Normandy American Cemetery
Delivers remarks 65th Anniv. Normandy Landing
Leaves Caen for Paris
Sunday, June 7: Departs Paris for Andrews Air Force Base
Presumably, sometime before he flew to the Middle East, President Obama recorded his weekly radio address to Americans, delivered while he was actually in Normandy, France. His only reference to his trip abroad was this: “I’ve been traveling through the Middle East and Europe working to renew our alliances, enhance our common security, and propose a new partnership between the United States and the Muslim world.” Then he was off and running on health care reform.
But here’s the thing. Many Americans do not want a “new partnership” with the Muslim world. Most Americans, if not fearful of Islam, are abysmally ignorant of it. Consider the controversy over the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York City. Or the fervid press attention given the ignorant Florida preacher prepared to launch a Koran burning. Or, perhaps more to the point, the failure of American feminists to understand their head-scarved Muslim counterparts.
President Obama, as if oblivious to this reality, has done nothing to foster the “partnership” from our American side. He has, for example, never prayed in a mosque in the United States, although he has visited several abroad. A proponent of education, he has done nothing to further an American understanding of either Islam or the Middle East. This reticence is a crafted response, of course, to some of our fellow citizens’ (lately to include Bill Maher, of all people) continued misapprehension of Obama’s personal religious beliefs. But for a leader this is no excuse.
Obama’s trip to Cairo turned out to be a checkmark on his “to-do” list. Cairo turned out to be merely a demonstration of his overweening confidence in the persuasive power of his persona. When Obama stopped in Indonesia this past year, delivering yet another “Muslim outreach speech,” praising Indonesia for yoking religious tolerance and democracy, the extent of his vanity was clear.
It pains me to write this—but President George W. Bush (and his father before him, now that I think about it) accomplished more in the realm of America’s relationship with the Muslim world. (The obverse is a different story—given Bush’s invasion of Iraq—of course.) But recall, for example, that moment post-9/11 when President Bush, with a few words, staunched a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. Speaking from a Washington, D.C. mosque, Bush called out those Americans who “should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.” He spoke simply: “Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America.”
What now for the current American president? Obama has touted foreign policy as his bailiwick. Despite his “understanding” of the Muslim world, however, he has allowed events in the Middle East to get out ahead of him, in the first months of 2011.
Obama’s stature is not the most important issue here, moreover. Fifty plus years of American dominance as the outside influence and honest broker for the Middle East have come to an end. Whatever the new Egyptian government that arises, it is not going to be as amenable to American interests, whether the issue is Gaza or Israel or Iran or Suez, as the old.
The implications ripple outward. As a baby boomer, I cannot remember a time when the world did not listen when the United States spoke. Even nations that did not want to hear had to at least pretend. Egypt—to be precise, urban largely middle class Egyptians both in the military and in the streets—has shown that we can be ignored.
The derision that the Egyptian protesters heaped on American policy makers over the last several weeks, and the concomitant refusal of first Mubarak and now Suleiman and Egypt’s military leaders to follow our directives are not what Barack Obama had in mind, I think we can safely assume, when he promised to repair America’s stature in the world after the years of its erosion during the Bush administration and the Iraq War. This is not a development Obama envisioned when he spoke in Cairo.
What has gone so terribly wrong? The tenor of American foreign policy in the Middle East is one that Obama inherited, of course. One way of looking at the collapse of our moral authority and powers of persuasion is that the chickens have come home to roost. At last, we are paying the price for supporting brutal dictatorships in the region. But President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton bear some responsibility. (Next week I will be writing more about Secretary Clinton and what she has been up to.)
A favorite term in both the Obama and the Clinton lexicons is “partnership.” This is how they describe America’s relationship with almost all other nations. But a democracy cannot “partner” with corruption. We are witnesses now to the consequences of trying to do so.
February 16, 2011