Don't Be So Sensitive, Mr. President
Truth comes before reconciliation.
President Barack Obama's visit to Europe afforded us an opportunity to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of his style in operation. And, even though he has almost attained the Holy Grail of public relations—in other words, he is practically at that ineffable and serene point where he gets good press for getting good press—there may come a time when even his trans-Atlantic admirers will have to take a second look.
His speech in Strasbourg, France, was much too long, given the youth of the audience and the way in which presidential sonorousness ate into the time that was to be allowed for questions, but its aim of changing the American tone was largely successful. I thought that the best moment was when he focused on the German and French citizens who had perished in the World Trade Center. George W. Bush always spoke as if the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, were an attack on the United States only and drew the corollary in his rhetoric that you are either "with" the United States or with the "terrists" (as he always seemed to think they were called). By underlining the losses suffered by other countries, not only did Obama redress this imbalance, he also gently but firmly reminded Europeans that this was and is their struggle, too.
One would have liked a bit more of this combination and perhaps very slightly less willingness to make disclaimers about American power. It's absurd to act as if, at NATO and G20 meetings, the United States is just another modest member. In the case of NATO, it is at least "first among equals," or primus inter pares, in that its military strength is greater than that of all the other members of the alliance combined. In the case of the world's economic powers, a disproportionate share of the blame for the current crisis lies with America and so does a comparably vast element of the chance that the decline can be reversed. It is obviously not a moment to strut around impersonating a hyperpower, but that doesn't mean that Madeleine Albright's injunction about the United States being a "necessary" power can be disowned, either.
The limitations of the Obama manner were exposed in his address to the Turkish parliament and his press conference with the Turkish leadership. The president did not take the opportunity to reiterate his principled stand on the Armenian genocide that we are commemorating this month and took refuge in platitudes about healing and negotiation. It's not as if the Turks don't know what he thinks, so it's difficult to see the value of undue reticence. And it's hardly an accident that, in all successful attempts at settling accounts with the past in other nations, the word reconciliation has invariably been preceded by the word truth. The first duty is to stop lying. Only then can any genuine attempt at settlement get under way.
It was also somewhat naive of Obama to deny that the United States is "or ever will be" at war with Islam. Of course, one cannot exactly make war on a faith, most especially a faith that is currently undergoing a civil war within itself, in which Turkey has several times been attacked by Bin Ladenist forces. But twice in the past, jihad has been officially proclaimed from Turkey's capital. It was in the name of the Quran that the piratical Ottoman provinces known as the Barbary States took hundreds of thousands of American and European voyagers into slavery in the 18th century, until Thomas Jefferson dispatched the fleet and the Marines to put down the trade, and it was from Constantinople that the Ottoman military alliance with German imperialism in 1914 was proclaimed as a holy war binding on all good Muslims. In other words, what one really wants is an assurance that Islam is not, nor ever will be, at war (again) with the United States.
That Obama is confused about this, and also slightly weak, is demonstrated by his earlier attempt at quiet diplomacy, or constructive engagement, or whatever we agree to call it, with Iran. He sent a message to "the people and leaders of Iran" on the occasion of Nowruz, or New Year—a day that he may or may not have known is slightly frowned upon by the Islamic authorities, because it involves fire ceremonies and other celebrations that predate the Muslim conquest of Persia. Any offense they might have taken on that score must have been mollified when the president twice referred to the country as "the Islamic Republic of Iran," as in, "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations."
Does this boilerplate goodwill represent anything true? In order for the great and civilized nation of Persia to take its rightful place in the community of nations, it would have to be able to demonstrate that its leadership was freely chosen by its own people and that it was willing to abide by agreements and undertakings (on nontrifling matters such as nuclear proliferation) that it had solemnly signed. The mullahs rule Iran on the basis of a Khomeini-ite dogma known as the veliyate faqui, which makes them the owners and "guardians" of all the country's citizens. And they have been covertly seeking enriched uranium of the sort not required for a civilian nuclear program, while never ceasing to proclaim the imminent and apocalyptic return of the 12th or "hidden" imam. In other words, in order to claim its "rightful place" in any recognizable community of nations, Iran would in effect have to cease to be an Islamic republic.
Meanwhile, the theocratic regime has several times exerted its power to arrest and imprison Iranian-Americans for "offenses" that would not be crimes in any civilized country. The most recent such outrage is the imprisonment of journalist Roxana Saberi, framed for allegedly buying a bottle of wine. We should hear more from the White House about her case and less about the sensitivities of her jailers. Some differences cannot be split. Many conflicts are real and do not arise from mere cultural misunderstandings. Obama must learn this or be taught it, whichever comes sooner.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of President Barack Obama on the Slate home page by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.