Mixed Signals in Obama’s Approach to Radical Islam

“Respect and partnership” 30 years ago

I didn’t pay close attention to Obama’s first media interview as President yesterday, with with Al-Arabiya. The news snippet I saw led with:

President Barack Obama on Tuesday chose an Arabic satellite TV network for his first formal television interview as president, delivering a message to the Muslim world that “Americans are not your enemy.”

Sounds good, I thought. Same message President Bush started emphasizing six days after 9/11.

Today a former favorite professor, Fouad Ajami, offers a somewhat more troubling perspective in the Wall Street Journal [free link], noting that Obama said he wants to return to “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.”

[Hm… 20 years ago… 1989… that would have been during the investigation into the December 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, for which a Libyan intelligence officer was convicted. 30 years ago would have been 1979… now why does that year stick in my mind? Oh yes, that was when militant Islamists declared war on America by taking hostages at our embassy in Tehran.]

But let Professor Ajami make his own points. Under President Bush:

America had toppled Taliban rule and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein; it had frightened the Libyan ruler that a similar fate lay in store for him. It was not sweet persuasion that drove Syria out of Lebanon in 2005. That dominion of plunder and terror was given up under duress…

In this vein, the assertive diplomacy of George W. Bush had given heart to Muslims long in the grip of tyrannies.

Take that image of Saddam Hussein, flushed out of his spider hole some five years ago: Americans may have edited it out of their memory, but it shall endure for a long time in Arab consciousness. Rulers can be toppled and brought to account. No wonder the neighboring dictatorships bristled at the sight of that capture, and at his execution three years later.

The irony now is obvious: George W. Bush as a force for emancipation in Muslim lands, and Barack Hussein Obama as a messenger of the old, settled ways. Thus the “parochial” man takes abroad a message that Muslims and Arabs did not have tyranny in their DNA, and the man with Muslim and Kenyan and Indonesian fragments in his very life and identity is signaling an acceptance of the established order. Mr. Obama could still acknowledge the revolutionary impact of his predecessor’s diplomacy, but so far he has chosen not to do so.

Ajami currently is a professor at Johns Hopkins, but he previously taught at Princeton, where I had the good fortune to take his International Relations course during my freshman year, more than [cough] years ago. His latest book, The Foreigner’s Gift, occupies a place of honor on my bookshelf — it is a scholarly examination of the war in Iraq, which the Lebanon-born Ajami strongly supports as a just war.

The WSJ article has an unfortunate headline that Ajami undoubtedly did not write: “Obama Tells Arabia’s Despots They’re Safe — America’s Diplomacy of Freedom is Officially Over.” That vastly overstates the point the good professor makes in the text. I read the article as a caution to the new president to avoid giving up the progress that has been made toward establishing a model for Islamic democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Ajami says in the article:

This war was never a unilateral American war to be called off by an American calendar. The enemy, too, has a vote in how this struggle between American power and radical Islamism plays out in the years to come.

Radical Islam will not end its war against America anytime soon. It will be up to President Obama to ensure that we continue to fight back. He struck the right tone in his inaugural address: “for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” When the inevitable next crisis arises, I hope his actions will be guided by those words, rather than by a yearning for the idyllic days of “20 or 30 years ago.”

4 thoughts on “Mixed Signals in Obama’s Approach to Radical Islam

  1. Good points throughout. I’d love to see both continued pressure on those rascals as well as attempts to ruin them economically by eliminating our need for oil from the Middle East (we would do well to tell a little fellow in Velenzuela to go to hell, too).

    Explore domestic sources for oil, develop alternatives — anything to keep our cash from going to the Middle East.

  2. I watched the presidential inauguration as well as the coverage of the inaugural balls after wards.

    During the Military Ball, a handful of our military men and women were asked what one thing would they like to say to their new Commander in Chief.

    They replied in unison, “Let us finish the job.”

  3. Hawg, I don’t think we’ll ever eliminate the need for oil with existing alternate technologies — we need some sort of scientific breakthrough that radically changes the game.

    Paul, I’m grateful, as I know you are, for the quality of the people who serve our country in the military.

  4. Kirk,

    Thank you for the post, but in all deference to Dr. Ajami, and much less so to the WSJ, the “Muslim world” is not one country nor even the Middle East. 30 years ago, yes, Iran took hostages and yes, the Ayatollah came to power BUT the reason why the students stormed the American Embassy in 1979 was because in 1953 Muhammad Mossadeq tried to nationalize Iran’s oil fields and was toppled by a CIA-backed coup d’etat at the behest of American oil companies. And the Libyan attack on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was – again – a single incident ordered by a lunatic who (if memory serves) had long given President Reagan fits (resulting in the bombing of Libya in 1986). During both the Iranian Revolution and the Lockerbie incidents (and the 9/11 attacks) were roundly criticized by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the rest of the “Muslim world.” In fact, on September 12th, Iranian president Mohammad Khateimi held a national day of mourning and used the Iranian army to seal to border with Afghanistan prior to the invasion of Afghanistan. The Bush administration even used the Iranian intelligence agency to communicate with dissident groups in Afghanistan prior to the invasion. It may also be worthy to note that Bush supported Pervez Musharraf who was a dictator who came to power in a coup (and tried to jail dissidents, judges and lawyers who wanted him to give up power), Bush also refused to recognize the duly (and democratically) elected representatives of Palestine (Hamas)[Democracy applies toward governments we don't like as much as it does to those we do], as well as called Iran a part of the “Axis of Evil” after which Khateimi and the centrist Majma-e Rowhaniyun-e Mobarez were swept out of power and replaced with Ahmedinijad and the E’telaf-e Abadgaran-e Iran-e Eslami in the 2005 elections. Additionally, the images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo bay (as well as extraordinary rendition by the CIA) have far, far outweighed the images of a disheveled Saddam Hussein being scooped out of his “spider hole.” To many in the Muslim world, as well as the “rest” of the world, the evil deeds the Bush administration authorized and indulged in left a much more indelible image than the “rightness” of the Iraq war.

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