Just about everybody has an idea for what the Great O should say. So here’s my run down:
1. Propaganda: One of the basic elements to successfully criticizing someone is to build up them before you tear them down. This is pretty simple psychology. Teachers use it all the time in trying to break it to students that their work is actually pretty bad.
Expect this from Obama, because Arab/Muslim prestige is such a big factor in Middle East politics. The ME has made it clear it would rather be right and poor than admit mistakes, flex, and get wealthy. Thomas Friedman (as well as B Lewis, F Zakaria, F Ajami, and countless others) has argued for years about just how deeply Arabs and Muslims want to fight to hang on to their ‘olive trees,’ regardless what it does to their economy, relations with the West, and overall ME power in world politics. And now, but for Africa, the Middle East is the worst governed region on earth. Yet the ME remains downright recalcitrant when it comes to learning from the West (Khomeini’s classic ‘westoxification’).
This is folly of course. One need only look at China, Japan and Korea to see how well emulation can work, and that it does not mean cultural Americanization, religious betrayal/Christianization, or wild Khomeinist Jewish conspiracy theories. Instead it it is the route to growth and weight in the international system. So 50 years ago, Nasser was more important than Mao, but today China is forging the future, and globalization is passing the ME by.
Nevertheless Obama must cater to this sensibility. He must throw out multicultural softballs about how Americans respect Islam, see it as one of the world’s great religions, value its past cultural achievements in areas like mathematics, etc. The irony of course is that none of this is true. Islam makes the West pretty nervous; its theology is radically simpler than Christianity, much less the western philosophical tradition serious thinkers must engage (and that helped make Christianity so much intellectually richer), so its unlikely most educated westerners ‘respect’ it; and who really cares about Islamic scientific progress several centuries ago? Who cares if Americans invited the lightbulb years ago? You don’t see the Chinese telling the West to respect it because of gunpowder, but rather because it is a growth dynamo, and we desperately need their savers.
2. Truth: Somehow Obama needs to say the same stuff W did about democracy, freedom, rights for women, open markets, and the US commitment to reduce terrorism. Thankfully Obama is a vastly better salesman for the ‘freedom agenda.’ 1. He is not an evangelical, but only mildly religious and mostly secular. 2. He is a Democrat, the party generally associated with multilateralism and internationalism in US foreign policy. 3. He is an intellectual and so probably understands what the freedom agenda actually is (unlike W who repeated it mantra-like, even as his administration undermined it at home). 4. His personal history speaks volumes.
So when Muslims hear a black secular liberal Democrat with the middle name Hussein who lived in Indonesia still say the same thing W did, then hopefully they will know we mean it. Just because Obama is new, young, black, more secular, whatever, doesn’t mean the region’s religious fanatics (including zionist settlers), autocrats, and terrorists should get a pass.
If Obama welches on this, if he avoids criticizing Mubarak, or if he looks a like he is accommodating Muslim supremacist thinking in order to end the GWoT, he will face crushing conservative criticism at home, and deservedly so.
3. Really Tough Truth: If Obama really has guts, he will talk about religious pluralism. To my mind, this is central cultural breakpoint between the West and Islam today. Islam as practiced today in the Middle East does not meaningful embrace religious pluralism or politically accept it. (Note: It does in Indonesia and SE Asia, which is exactly why the Saudi clerical establishment has funded the building of schools and mosques there.) ME Islam particularly seems unwilling to admit the equality of all religions before a neutral secular state. Parts of the world are still designated ‘Muslim lands;’ apostasy is still a crime in at least 8 Muslim-majority states; and even Iraq’s constitution declares it a Muslim state in which the Koran can be a source of law. So long as the supremacy of Islam is a defining feature of politics in the region, it will be hard for non-Muslims to ‘respect’ or feel comfortable with the ME. No other part of the world mixes religion and politics like this anymore. In the West, secular politics dates to the Enlightenment, if not the Reformation. When Westerners look at politicized religion in the ME, they see their own dangerous past of the religious wars of the 16th C.
4. Payoff: 2 and 3 would be pretty tough to swallow for the Islamic ME, so here is a great payoff that is good for the US (and Israel in the long-run) anyway: serious pressue on the Israelis to finally exit the West Bank and get the two-state solution rolling. The debate on this has changed enormously. For the first time since the first Bush administration, we have an adminisration ready to take on the Israel lobby at home and the Israeli government. The intellectual center of gravity has really shifted, so Obama and Clinton are now well-grounded in an emerging consensus in the US. Thanks for this most especially to Stephen Walt‘s tireless, much-derided but actually quite even-handed writing on this. You may have hated his book, but it did a lot to make clear how the the Israel lobby in the US has abetted the worst imperialist instincts of the settler movement and so made a meaning two-state deal impossible for decades. It is now clear to everybody but the most recalcitrant that Israel needs to get out. US pressure to this end will help the ME swallow points 2 and 3 at no cost to the US, because a two-state solution is now clearly in American’s interest anyway.
5. Prediction: Obama will overdose on the propaganda (watch especially, if he mentions Muhammad, if next he says ‘PBUH’ or ‘praise by upon Him’), ride gently with the truth, talk moderately but firmly in support of the two-state solution, and slide by the tough pluralist part. The reason, I think, is his desire to end the GWoT or at least tone it down, to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as fast as possible, and then do what he really wants to do and spend where he really wants the US budget to go – on the US welfare state. If he can pull us out of the wars, draw a cool peace with the ME, and then add universal health care and green energy to the New Deal and Great Society, he will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents ever.