The Obama Administration insists that the ongoing demonstrations outside our embassies in Muslim nations constitute a reaction to a trailer posted on You Tube of a yet unreleased dramatization of the life of Mohammed. This is partially true. The Obama Administration sees it as the complete truth, however, because to do otherwise would admit the failure of "A New Beginning" announced at Cairo University on June 4, 2009 and question the wisdom of its support of the so-called "Arab Spring."
Aside from the President's claim to have acquired special insight from growing up in a Muslim country and community organizing among Muslims in Chicago, the Cairo speech was not that bad. It did contain, however, one glaring error:
"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
The President elaborated later in his speech:
"But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere."
Obama's problem is that tolerance and human rights are not really part of what we might call the"public philosophy" of Muslim countries. Their public philosophy might best be articulated as "There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet." Political implications based upon that statement do not leave much room for human rights. Merely setting up a procedural democracy in such countries guarantees neither a government respectful of human rights nor a government friendly to the United States.
In contrast, our public philosophy as articulated in the Declaration of Independence centers on equality, natural rights, and government by consent. The procedural democracy set up by our Constitution rests upon that public philosophy and respects those rights.
Obama's problem, however, is our problem as well. For Obama's approach to the Muslim world is pretty much Bush III and reflects the view of most establishment Republicans. Remember all the hand-holding and lip-smacking that Bush engaged in with members of the Saudi ruling family? Remember Bush's description of Islam as a religion of peace? And remember that Bush also sought to establish procedural democracies in the Muslim world in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in the Palestinian National Authority? The elections in Palestine resulted in the victory of Hamas and the subsequent fighting between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine. The governments in Afghanistan and Iraq will collapse after we leave.
The fact that many conservatives share Obama's presuppositions about the Muslim world has not stopped them from engaging in both criticism and rank hypocrisy. Jon Stewart (not really my favorite) recently drew attention to such hypocrisy recently on his show.
Apparently some conservatives embrace the spread of democracy as part of our mission as long as we spread it through warfare by Republican administrations. Not so if Muslims overthrow despotic regimes on their own.
Maybe we need to focus more on simply protecting the national security of the United States instead of bringing regime change to nations that do not share our cultural history or public philosophy. John Stuart Mill's reflection from over one hundred years ago on whether democracy is appropriate for subjects of British imperialism seems more prescient than ever:
“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.”