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Mark Levine Headshot

The Student of History Needs to Go to Summer School

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Near the start of his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world, President Obama described himself as "a student of history;" by the end it was clear that he needs to get back to the classroom.

For all its well-intentioned rhetoric, President Obama's speech was, sadly, conceptually flawed, empirically challenged, and politically blind to the daily realities that drive hundreds of millions of Muslims to increasing despair.

Conceptually, the President's goal was clearly to help correct the mistaken notion shared by so many Muslims and Americans of the notion of an essential conflict between them. He even spoke of Islam, rightly, as being "always part of America."

But such rhetoric was overshadowed by the use of language and themes that hew closely to the long-held notion of "Islam" and the "West" as being two essentially different and civilizations traveling on separate historical trajectories.

To bridge the rift between them, Obama had first to establish a deep, centuries-long tension driven by "historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate." Islam "carried the light of learning" and "paved the way" for modernity and globalization, but it did not participate directly in their birth or development. Instead, modernity and the "sweeping change" it brought "led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam."

This idea of an essentially European modernity forcing its way into hostile Muslim territory is belied by the historical record. Indeed, the banking, credit and trading systems that fueled modern capitalism were born in Muslim-led trading systems of the Mediterranean. And where possible Muslims adopted the latest developments, from weapons to steam engines to agricultural technologies, as soon as they became available.

Yet however inaccurate, such a dualistic narrative serves an important rhetorical function in the President's larger argument. With a gap so wide, he can rightly argue that "change cannot happen overnight." Indeed, before the speech Senior Adviser David Axelrod explained that the breach would likely take more than one administration to heal.

In fact, change could happen overnight; and the policies necessary to achieve it are simple and easily implemented -- precisely because Muslims and Americans share so many of the same values when it comes to respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of Law.

But change will only happen if President Obama takes seriously what most Muslim have long said, not merely "behind closed doors," but in the open and to anyone who will listen.

Here I'm reminded here of President Reagan's historic speech at the Berlin Wall, almost 22 years ago to the day, on June 12, 1987, where he exclaimed: "There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace... Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

This is the kind of language Obama needed to use in his speech. He needed to demand that the autocrats and occupiers of the region end their oppression, open the doors of their prisons and tear down their walls, and allow the peoples of the region to live in peace, freedom and democracy. And he needed to put the muscle and money of US foreign policy behind those words, the same way Reagan did in confronting the Soviet Union.

First and foremost, President Obama should have announced that the United States would stop providing political, economic and military support to corrupt and brutal authoritarian regimes, without exception. This goes for occupiers like Israel (and, one could add, India in Kashmir and Morocco in the Western Sahara) and governments of key allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt -- where thousands of activists have been harassed, imprisoned, tortured, burned and even killed by security forces without any fear US retribution, and will continue to suffer once Mr. Obama leaves.

Sadly, the President has offered little tangible support for some of Egypt's most important dissident voices, such as Ayman Nour, the one-time presidential candidate recently released from prison, who a bit over a week ago was almost burned to death by government thugs. Instead, he and his most senior advisors regularly praise Mubarak's "leadership" in an unending peace process that brings billions of dollars of aid and political support to his government, while well over 30 million of his compatriots live in dire poverty. Obama's effective silence on these issues is deafening to a generation of young Egyptians desperate to move beyond the current system and realize their natural, and national potential in a free society.

Instead of making concrete demands on President Mubarak and other regional leaders regarding freedom, democracy, human rights, and committing the US to a major shift in our policies on those issues, President Obama argued that the first step to healing the US-Islamic divide must be to "confront violent extremism in all of its forms." What the President doesn't realize is that from the standpoint of the peoples of the Middle East, US support for governments like Israel, Egypt and other authoritarian regimes, along with our invasion of Iraq -- which despite his pledge to "speak the truth" he refused to admit was wrong -- have been as extreme and violent as those of militant Islam.

He should have admitted that the Iraq invasion was flat-out wrong, not merely a "war of choice," and apologized for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and untold billions of dollars of their wealth and resources destroyed.

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, the President's words do mark a significant shift in tone from the rhetoric of his predecessors, especially his placing Palestine on equal footing with Israel as a nation deserving independence and sovereignty. But hearing them I couldn't help thinking that they constituted the speech President Clinton should have given sixteen years ago at the start of the Oslo peace process.

Back then, when there were only a bit more than 100,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, calling for a "stop" to settlements made sense. Today, with nearly triple the population and having rendered huge swaths of the West Bank permanently off limits to Palestinians, it is a decade too late. Stopping settlement construction will still leave the West Bank a mishmash of Palestinian islands that cannot form the nuclear of a sovereign state.

Nothing less than the dismantlement of the majority of settlements, bypass roads and checkpoints, will allow for the creation of a territorially viable Palestinian state. Muslim listeners to his speech understand that unless the President is willing to force Israel to choose between the settlements and continued US patronage, peace will remain impossible to achieve.

Mr. Obama has a steep learning curve before he can hope to fulfill the lofty rhetoric of his speech in Cairo. He seems unaware that the best and perhaps only way to get the peoples of the Muslim world to support US goals such as preventing Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, pacifying Afghanistan, and stamping out violent Islamism is to hold all the peoples of the region and their leaders, without exception, to one, easily measurable standard.

Unless his words are matched by a rapid and profound shift in the strategic calculus underlying American foreign policy, Obama's speech will be remembered as little more than "haki fadi," or empty talk, and peace in the Middle East -- and with it America's quest for a better relationship with the people of the Muslim world -- will remain an illusive dream.