Obama’s speech sends mixed message

Published 8:36 pm Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In his speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo last week, President Obama told his Muslim audience many things it needed to hear about democracy, religious tolerance and the evils of anti-Semitism. But the president ultimately went too far in trying to win favor in the Islamic world, minimizing crucial political and cultural differences, suggesting a link between Muslim radicalism and U.S. policies in the Middle East and drawing misleading historical parallels between the Palestinians and the Jews.

The speech was promoted in advance as a repudiation of George W. Bush’s policies, which President Obama believes alienated millions of Muslims and fueled Islamic terrorism. Interestingly, however, President Obama nearly echoed his predecessor in asserting the universality of democratic principles and the need for Muslim countries to embrace those principles as a necessary precondition for peace and economic progress.

President Obama asserted that democratic elections, the rule of law and “the freedom to live as you choose” aren’t just “American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” He added that “governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.”

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There was a clear message here for the monarchies and dictatorships that dominate the Middle East. The president should have gone further, however, and noted that it’s no coincidence that violent extremism flourishes under some of these authoritarian regimes. Iran and Syria, for instance, finance terrorist organizations and use them as proxies in an undeclared war against the United States and Israel.

To his credit, President Obama did call the Holocaust deniers in the Islamic world to account. Unfortunately, he also offered a very loose comparison between the suffering of Europe’s Jews and the Palestinians’ quest for a “homeland.” It’s true the Palestinians have endured significant hardships — many of which were self-inflicted. But there simply is no parallel between the Holocaust and the Palestinians’ often-violent struggle for statehood.

The most disappointing passage of the president’s speech concerned Iran’s history of violence against the United States and its current attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. President Obama seemed to be giving Iran’s theocratic government a partial pass on its hostility toward the West by emphasizing the U.S. role — more than 50 years ago — in overthrowing a pro-Soviet Iranian government.

His stance on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was almost noncommittal. He said that no “single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons.” This may mean he is unwilling to go beyond toothless United Nations resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program. If that’s the case, a radical Islamic regime will soon have the capability to destroy Israel and intimidate moderate Arab governments.

It’s encouraging that President Obama sees the spread of freedom as a key to peaceful relations with Muslim countries. We hope his audience was listening to his call for freedom and democracy, but we fear the Islamists will hear his apologies for U.S. policies and mild tone toward Iran and detect weakness they can exploit.

—The Press-Register