If President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday is designed to hit "reset" on Washington's relations with the Muslim world, the White House may soon find that it is pushing the wrong buttons. Public diplomacy in the lands of Islam is a deeply complicated affair, and Muslims do it much better than U.S. presidents.
It is a given that anything Obama says or does will be an improvement over the Bush administration's inept efforts at Muslim outreach. And yet it is worth recalling that the Bush administration also sought to appeal directly to Muslims. Bush's freedom agenda, after all, was intended to give Muslims a democratic voice in their own governance. Nonetheless, Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's one-time point man for Middle East democracy, is one among many across the political spectrum who are concerned that by choosing an authoritarian police state for his podium, Obama may be signaling that the United States is ditching democracy promotion. But the real problem is that Obama has not learned from Bush's errors. In seeking to speak to the Muslim masses over the heads of their rulers, Obama, as columnist David Goldman (who usually writes under the name Spengler) explains, is undermining an important U.S. ally on his home turf.
"By addressing the 'Islamic world' from Cairo," writes Goldman, "Obama lends credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other advocates of political Islam who demand that Muslims be addressed globally and on religious terms." In other words, the American president is playing into the hands of those who seek to bring down the U.S.-backed order in the Middle East.
Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, there has been no "Muslim world," as such. The caliphate was dissolved; Kemal Ataturk refashioned Turkey as a secular republic; and the European powers, particularly Great Britain and France, carved up the Ottomans' former territories into nation-states like Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, Palestine, and Iraq. While Middle Easterners have complained for more than 80 years that these borders were imposed on them by the Europeans, the fact is that the region's rulers—if not always their subjects—are happy with their holdings.
These regimes fulfill almost none of the functions of a genuine nation-state—such as providing for the welfare of their citizens—but their centralized authority has generally satisfied European and U.S. officials. The stock and trade of our bilateral relations—diplomacy, commerce, and war—are less efficient instruments when transacted with tribal confederations, which, as we now know, thanks to our adventure in Iraq, is the basis of Middle East politics. There is no "Muslim world," only the chaos of competing clan systems, which is why preserving the quasi-nation-state system of the Middle East is a vital U.S. interest.
Now that Washington has put democracy promotion on the back burner, the only challenge to these regimes is from Islamists and other so-called nonstate actors, as well as the state that stands behind them: the Islamic Republic of Iran. President Obama has unwittingly walked right into the middle of Tehran's own public diplomacy campaign, one of the most effective PR efforts ever staged.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced many important ideas into contemporary Islamic practice and thought—especially the highly contested notion of vilayet e-faqih, that the religious guide should also hold supreme political power—but perhaps Khomeini's major contribution was not an innovation but a simplification. To the question What does it mean to be a Muslim? Khomeini gave a one-word answer: resistance.