For a man of his impressive educational credentials, Barack Obama has sometimes shown a surprising ignorance of history.
During the 2008 campaign, when challenged on his pledge to meet with foreign tyrants without preconditions, he said that presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on had met with leaders of enemy nations. Funny thing, but in my books on World War II, I haven’t been able to find the chapters on the Roosevelt-Hitler and Roosevelt-Tojo summits. In his speech in the Tiergarten last summer, he told us that the Berlin Wall came down thanks to "a world that stands as one." My recollection is that the world was standing as two, and one side wanted to keep the wall up.
The good news is that in his speech to "the Muslim world" in Cairo last week, Obama showed a surer grasp of the past. The bad news is that he still has more to learn.
Obama got some important things right and pounded them home to his audience. Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. "Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful." Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11. "These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with." America’s bond with Israel is "unbreakable." Good, though perhaps undercut later in the speech. "The richness of religious diversity must be upheld — whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt." Very good, though lacking any reference to Saudi Arabia, perhaps because the list of sects not tolerated would be too long.
"I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," Obama said, "one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect." The unfortunate implication is that the United States did not respect Muslims before his inauguration. But then he went on to make points that George W. Bush made repeatedly in the seven years after Sept. 11.
"America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam." "All people yearn for certain things," including free speech, democracy, the rule of law, "the freedom to live as you choose." He also echoed Bush in his criticism of "a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations."
Like Bush and other American presidents, Obama hailed the United States as "one of the greatest sources of progress the world has ever known." And the candidate who treated our mission in Iraq with scorn seems to have felt obliged to acknowledge that "the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein" and that the government of Iraq is "democratically elected."
But he still has some history left to learn. "No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." But that’s what the United States did in Germany and Japan, and in Iraq, as well. As one of the Democratic senators who insisted that the Iraqis meet benchmarks, Obama was a micromanager in that process himself.
"We did not go by choice; we went because of necessity" into Afghanistan. No, it was by choice; we could have stayed out and depended, as we did after the attacks of the 1990s, on homeland defenses. And as for his claim that "Islam has always been a part of America’s story," that’s a stretch, and one that requires airbrushing out the war against the Barbary pirates.
Most disturbingly, Obama seems to have gotten the history of the Israel-Palestine issue wrong. The plight of the Palestinians since 1948 or 1967 is not the moral equivalent of the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust, as Obama’s "on the other hand" segue suggested. Nor are private statements by Arabs accepting the continued existence of Israel the moral equivalent of Israeli governments’ public willingness to negotiate with Palestinians.
Obama seems not to have learned from previous presidents’ attempts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that no solution is possible without an interlocutor willing to let Israel live in peace. His attempt to muscle Israel into stopping even natural growth of settlements beyond the 1967 line applies pressure to the party already willing to make peace. Obama needs to brush up on the Barbary pirates, but even more so on the last 40 years of Middle East history.