Victor Davis Hanson: Obama and the Malleability of History

Roundup: Historians' Take

President Obama has given a number of major speeches touching on world affairs since he announced his bid for the presidency. All have invoked historical examples — usually for moral purposes, but often at the expense of both literal and figurative truth....

The Cairo Speech

1) The following can be said of Obama’s Islamic mythography: a) Islam did not pave “the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.” To the extent Islam was involved at all, it was Greek scholars fleeing Ottoman pressure at Byzantium who sparked the Western Renaissance, while the Enlightenment’s Romantic movements proclaimed a desire to free classical lands from supposed Ottoman backwardness. b) Breakthroughs in navigation, pens, printing, medicine, etc. were largely Western or Chinese innovations. c) “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Córdoba during the Inquisition.” Córdoba had few Muslims when the Inquisition began in 1478, having been reconquered by the Christians well over two centuries earlier. d) Left unsaid was that the great colonizers of the Middle East were not the Europeans, but the Ottoman Muslims, who were far harsher and ruled far longer.

2) “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Would that include postwar Japan, Italy, and Germany? Should we not have attempted to impose a system of government in Iraq or Afghanistan?

3) “For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights.” During the 1860s, more than 600,000 Americans died over slavery in America’s bloodiest war, which resulted in universal citizenship; during the 1960s and 1970s, racial turmoil over matters of racial equality was not nonviolent.

The West Point Speech

1) “Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive.” Obama did not cite a single specific request for more troops that was denied by the Pentagon during Bush’s time in office. One might fault the Bush administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the problem was largely a command theory of “light footprint,” which sought not to alienate indigenous populations through a large, obtrusive American presence. So far there is no evidence of a denied troop request between 2001 and 2009.

2) “I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan, and the extremist safe-havens in Pakistan.” That obvious strategy predated Obama, who inherited from his predecessor everything from Predator drone attacks to carrot-and-stick diplomacy with the Pakistanis.

3) “This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” This is, of course, true, but leaves out the inconvenient fact that the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were — like most al-Qaeda operatives — Sunni Arabs who came to the borderlands from somewhere else, supported by Gulf private money and energized by radical teaching that emanates from Gulf and Cairo Wahhabi mosques. The epicenter of radical Islam is not Waziristan. Rather, it is found at the nexus between petro-money and radical Islamic teaching in the Arab world.

4) “In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly.” That may be true of the Carter and Reagan administrations, or the Clinton tolerance for a nuclear Pakistan, but it is hard to accept as a description of the Bush administration’s eight years of ongoing massive American military and economic aid, public pressure for democratic reform, and close consultation with India and Pakistan about regional disagreements. The logical corollary should have been praise for the Bush administration’s holistic engagement and rebuke for the Carter-era policy (continued under Reagan) that armed Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviets without much worry over the blowback in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

5) “As a country, we are not as young — and perhaps not as innocent — as we were when Roosevelt was president.” In fact, American diplomacy is far more transparent than it ever was during the Roosevelt administration, which engaged in all sorts of secret accords affecting millions, including the future of most of Eastern Europe....

Obama feels that reverence for both the facts and spirit of history is not as important as that noble aim. If, for example, Muslims can be assured that the West has been just as culpable as they have been, and if they can be praised by unduly exaggerating their past cultural achievements, then perhaps the Islamic world will see that the United States is a broker of good will.

The alternatives to Obama’s constant historical revisionism would be to be quiet about history’s often disturbing truths — or to admit that the present globalization, in terms of economics, politics, culture, and military affairs, is largely an embrace of Westernization and the result of the unique dynamism and morality of Western culture itself.

To articulate the latter truth abroad would be chauvinistic and impolitic. To be quiet about it would be diplomatic. But to distort it for noble intentions has been nevertheless ignoble.

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John a Wilson - 12/23/2009

That little speech writer twit named Favreau is running out of gas. If he leaves, Brack is toast. Favreau is the teleprompter.