In September 1938 English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, explaining why he was flying to Germany a third time in order to make peace with Germany, recited the old nursery rhyme: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” Cynical wags in the Foreign Office, who knew Chamberlain was in fact appeasing Hitler by surrendering Czechoslovakia to him, quickly began circulating another version of the saying: “If at first you don’t concede, fly, fly, fly again.”
President Obama’s new “outreach” to the Muslim world reminds me of Chamberlain’s serial efforts to appease a Germany bent on aggression and conquest. First there was the Cairo speech in June 2009, which was supposed to be a “new beginning” for U.S. relations with Muslims, but in fact simply indulged the same old bad habits of Western self-doubt and historical guilt. Thus Obama attributed the “tension” between the West and Islam to a “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold war in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” Next came the videotaped New Year’s greetings to Iran, and the multiple letters to the Iranian “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei requesting “co-operation in regional and bilateral relations.” These outreaches were followed by Khameini’s announcement that “the path of Iran’s nuclear progress could not be blocked,” and by the brutal crackdown that summer on the demonstrators protesting the tyranny of the mullahcracy. Meanwhile Iran continues its support of terrorists murdering our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama also extended the hand of friendship to Syria’s Bashar al Assad, sending an ambassador back to Damascus despite that country’s close ties to Iran and Hezbollah, its assassination of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and its support given to terrorists by facilitating their travel into Iraq and Afghanistan. Assad reciprocated by hosting a confab with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s genocidal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And like his Iranian buddies, Assad has responded to the current demonstrations against his regime by killing about a thousand protestors. Nor has Obama’s abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak worked any magic in changing the Egyptians into liberal democrats or even making them like us more. The jihadist Muslim Brotherhood daily grows more powerful, attacks on Christian Copts, abetted at times by the military, are proliferating, the border with Gaza is open, and more and more Egyptians are calling for trashing the peace treaty with Israel. Unsurprisingly, according to a May Pew Research survey, only 20% of Egyptians view the United States favorably, and only 35% have “a lot” or “some confidence” in Obama’s leadership.
In short, every time Obama has offered his hand to Muslims in friendship, the less he and America are liked, and the less events trend in directions favorable to our national interests. Now comes another effort, the recent May 19 address to the Muslim world that attempted to take account of the demonstrations and protests roiling the Middle East, and to outline America’s response. And like those previous efforts, this one will do little to change either perceptions or events, for it is predicated on the same dubious assumptions and misapprehensions that have compromised our reactions to the Muslim world.
The main thrust of Obama’s speech in the main reprises the same Bush Doctrine that the president and his party spent years attacking. The problems of the Muslim Middle East, in this view, result from a lack of political and economic “self-determination” and “universal rights” that prevents people from enjoying freedom and prosperity. Tyrannical rulers and jihadist outfits alike exploit this frustration and despair, attempting “to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere,” as Obama puts it, blaming the West, colonialism, and Israel for all that ails the Middle East. The solution, then, is for the United States “to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy” so that people can obtain “a set of universal rights” including “free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders.” In addition, economic reform will be supported through efforts “to build networks of entrepreneurs, and expand exchanges in education; to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease.” More practically, this means encouraging the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to provide funds, asking Congress to create Enterprise funds for investment, and forgiving $1 billion in Egyptian debt, with promises of access to $1 billion more.
Lurking behind all this rhetoric, however, is a flawed assumption––that everybody in the world is just like us and wants the same things we want. This Western article of faith arose in the 19th Century, when increasing global trade, European colonial penetration and global dominance, and world-shrinking technologies like the telegraph and steamship seemingly were creating a global “harmony of interests” based on a universal rational human nature. Peace, freedom, and prosperity are the deepest desires of all humans, previously unrealized because of persisting religious or tribal superstitions, irrational ethnic and nationalist loyalties, oppressive governments, a lack of education, and poverty. Remove those impediments and the whole world would enter the paradise of peace and plenty. However, as the nightmare history of the 20th Century shows––with its some 200 million slaughtered by war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and political murder––human beings may want peace and prosperity, but they want other things as well, some of them dark and violent and not to be appeased with material bribes or concessions.
Our struggle against Islamic jihad has been compromised by this same mistaken assumption. By locating the origins of jihadist terror in the material and political conditions of the Middle East, we have ignored the spiritual roots of jihadism in traditional Islamic theology, and its certainty of Muslim superiority and right to dominate others. This mistake has been obvious in the commentary on the so-called “Arab Spring” that Obama’s speech basically recycles. Too many have celebrated the uprisings as efforts to achieve the freedom, prosperity, human rights, and other goods we possess. No doubt some Muslims do want these things. But as the behavior of the new regime in Egypt suggests, perhaps even more want something else in addition to less oppression and corruption and more economic opportunity––to create an Islamic government that institutes an illiberal shari’a law and battles more directly against the enemies of Islam such as Israel. These Western idealizers enthusing over the demand for “freedom” need to ask the most important question––freedom to do what? Be like us, or be good Muslims? But what if being good Muslims means rejecting foundational democratic principles such as political freedom and human rights?
Chamberlain’s mistake was to think that Germany just wanted to bring home its people who had been unjustly stranded outside of the motherland by the unjust Versailles Treaty. Heal that wound, and the Germans would get back to seeking prosperity and peace with its neighbors. Of course, the majority of Germans wanted something more sinister, a racial empire that dominated its neighbors, and were willing to kill and die and murder to achieve it. That mistaken assumption about German intentions led to the diplomatic disaster of Munich and the following inferno of global war. So too our serial efforts at “outreach,” and our continuous offerings of material incentives and goods like the freedom that we prize, blind us to the spiritual imperatives motivating millions of people in the Muslim world.
It’s time we stopped reacting to a world we have created from our own wish-fulfilling assumptions and delusions, and start heeding the wisdom of scripture: By their fruits ye shall know them. We have rescued Muslims from murderous thugs in Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan; we have transferred billions and billions to Muslim nations, including the terrorist PLO; we have spent our blood and treasure to create for Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan the freedom and self-determination Obama’s speech proclaims we support and Muslims desire; we have done all this, yet outside Indonesia and Lebanon, not even 1 in 5 Muslims like us. Maybe it’s time to rethink our assumptions.