Will President Obama''s speech at the National Defense University this week rank with his speech in Cairo that called for freedom, liberty, and democracy, or George W. Bush''s speeches that promised democracy in Iraq and later declared victory?
Bluster or wisdom? is an appropriate question to ask of an American president, fated to comment and to affect things far beyond the prospects of any intimate knowledge of places that fall within the assumed responsibilities and the great power of the United States.
Obama''s Cairo speech, as well as those of Bush promising democracy and then declaring victory were clearly in the realm of bluster. Toppling Saddam Hussein destroyed a regime capable of controlling a society that--in its absence--has suffered more than a million (estimated) deaths and who knows how many lives dislocated. Demanding liberty and democracy for societies not prepared for either contributed to the onset of Arab Spring which most clearly made things worse in Syria, and arguably so in Libya and Egypt.
It is too early to judge the most recent speech. It had its moments of bluster, but other elements suggest the wisdom accumulated by an intelligent individual over the course of his presidency.
Most clearly in the realm of bluster was the President''s comment that Al Qaeda is now “on the path to defeat,” which will allow a downsizing of the war against terror. "This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”
The Economist headlines its coverage of the speech, "The beginning of the end."
The response from adversaries was not long in coming.
Senator John McCain referred to the comment about al Qaeda as “a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible.”
An assessment in the New York Times put the emphasis on what comes next.
"It is an ambitious vision — one that eschews a muscle-bound foreign policy, dominated by the military and intelligence services, in favor of energetic diplomacy, foreign aid and a more measured response to terrorism. But it is fraught with risks, and hostage to forces that are often out of the president’s control.From the grinding civil war in Syria and the extremist threat in Yemen to the toxic American relationship with Pakistan and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan with no clear sense of what comes afterward"
For some on the American left, the President did not go far enough. An anti-war activist shouted from the audience--before being led outside--that the president must release prisoners from Guantánamo, halt C.I.A. drone strikes, and apologize to Muslims for killing so many of them.
Perhaps in the realm of bluster was the President''s renewed pledge to close Guantanamo and send Yemenite prisoners back to a country whose present government is prepared to act decently.
It might work, or it might demand a later effort by speechwriters to skirt around whatever shortfalls from justice occur in a place that few Americans should claim to understand.
What is clearly wisdom in this speech comes from the President''s more modest aspirations with respect to the fight against terror. He said that the "systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” However, “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."
He conceded that “Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror . . . We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”
He did not say explicitly that American must cope with a problem that has no solution, but that is the essence of what he said, and is the greatest reason for applause.
More Britons may suffer decapitation on crowded streets by what has been described as its home-grown al-Qaeda. Israelis, Americans, and others will also die. As long as the numbers are much smaller than those killed by traffic accidents or barroom brawls, they will not justify all-out wars and occupations.
The US, Israel, and Europe are stuck with the downsides of Islam. We should neither overlook nor exaggerate. Most Muslims may not be inclined to violence, even while many of them are infected with a religious fervor that is destructive for them and for others. An infrastructure of preachers, schools, and internet sites promotes an aggressive Islam that feeds off poverty, frustration, and efforts by Israel, the US, and other countries to combat violent Muslims. Moderate Muslims view those efforts as a crusade against their religion. All of this assures a continued problem of Islamic violence.
One needn''t surrender, but neither should one pursue an all-out war that is not likely to be successful, and is certain to be costly in material and moral terms.
One can also hope that a bit more of the wisdom will appear in place of the Administration''s efforts to renew a peace process that neither Israel nor the Palestinians want.
Secretary of State John Kerry is trying again to get something going, and already encountered a Palestinian rejection. The time is not ripe, according to one of their spokesmen, who criticized the American effort for not including a proposal that meets Palestinian expectations.
What are those expectations?
Perhaps an American program to move Israel with all its Jews somewhere else.
A foolish extrapolation?
Not according to recently released accounts of the efforts by Ehud Olmert, in his final days as prime minister, to achieve even a tentative agreement by Mahmoud Abbas to the most far reaching territorial concessions ever proposed.
Israeli leftists have their apologies for yet another Palestinian rejection, and continue to say that whatever happened then, "we all know" that the next round must start with what Olmert proposed and proceed to offers that are even more generous.
"We all know" does not include prevailing sentiments of the Israeli center, and certainly not the substantial rightist component of Israeli politics.
Kerry''s visit has come along with yet another reaffirmation of Prime Minister Netanyahu''s support for a two-state solution, but with no expectations that serious negotiations will occur.
Highest on Israel''s agenda are squabbles over economic policy and proposals to induce or force Haredi young men out of a lifetime of unproductive study. Rarely does a politician with some government connection say something about the Palestinians that goes beyond a ceremonial response to another American initiative.
Israelis learned some time ago, in response to an 18-year involvement in Lebanon, two intifadas, and several invasions of Gaza that there is no solution to our problems with the Palestinians. There may also be an awareness among the Palestinian leadership that there is no solution for their problems with Israel. Ranking Palestinians forswear violence, at least in some of their comments. Against that, however, are persistent Palestinian efforts to score points in international forums, which do nothing more in a concrete sense than push Israelis further toward distrust.
We''re all coping, whether we recognize it or not. We should applaud the wisdom that concedes the inevitable, and consign to the bushes those who insist on solutions for problems that have frustrated good intentions and serious efforts for the better part of a century.