Wednesday, January 28, 2009

American Exceptionalism and the Backlash to Obama's Interview with Al Arabiya

When I heard that President Obama gave an interview to Al Arabiya television the other day, I knew that there was going to be some intense backlash. Before long, bloggers and pundits were outraged that Obama was "apologizing" to the Muslim world for the conduct of America during the so-called "War on Terror". Take Ben Shapiro, columnist for and, whose latest piece is entitled "The Day America Lost the War on Terror".

As one might imagine, Shapiro starts by claiming that America "lost the War on Terror" on the day that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, November 4, 2008. Shapiro then goes on to use broad, sweeping, and overly dramatic language to make the point that Obama is making America less safe and that Obama's global agenda will end up killing the idea of Ameircan exceptionalism.

Let's start off with Obama's interview to Al Arabiya to which you can find the video here and the transcript here. The clips of the interview that have been circulating and that many have focused on are as follows:

Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries...the largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the
fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith -- and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers -- regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.

And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.

I think that you're making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist
organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.And so you will I think see our administration be very clear indistinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda -- that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it -- and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down. But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.

Obama stresses a few different points in these clips:

- Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of every faith all share in common hopes and dreams.
- The Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who want to live good lives and leave a better world for the next generation.
- Though we (America) have not been perfect and have made mistakes, we are not the enemy of the Muslim people.
- Obama believes that the relationship between the Muslim world and America can be restored.
- Language matters and we cannot "paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.

If you read some of the postings and writings of those who are critical of Obama's approach in this interview, you would get an entirely different feel of what Obama said. I will focus on some points from Ben Shapiro's most recent piece, but the themes he puts forth are similar in many of the critiques that I have been reading.

The following clips are from Shapiro's piece:

In the interview, he demonstrated with the utmost clarity that his understanding is inversely proportional to his arrogance. He started by humbling America before the world. “(A)ll too often the United States starts by dictating,” Obama said, shame for his country dripping from his lips. “So let’s listen.” There was no call for the Muslim world, which has sponsored genocide after genocide, terrorist group upon terrorist group, to listen.

Obama apologized for President Bush’s “Islamic fascism” terminology, equating
Muslim terrorism with nonexistent terrorism by Jews and Christians...There was
no call for the Muslim world to actively fight terrorism—honesty is not the
Obama administration’s policy.

Most sickeningly, Obama openly jettisoned his constitutional role as the caretaker for America’s national interest. Instead, Obama posed himself as an honest broker between America and the Muslim world...He stated that his job is to speak for the Muslim world, defending them from Americans’ negative perceptions...

Shapiro begins by stating his displeasure with Obama "humbling America before the world" due to Obama's comments that we need to communicate and that we are willing to listen and not just dictate. "With shame for his country dripping from his lips," Shapiro quips and then complains that Obama didn't ask the "Muslim world" to listen. Perhaps Mr. Shapiro does not realize that when two countries engage in diplomacy, both sides get a chance to talk and both sides get a chance to listen. This is also characteristic of how a productive conversation takes place. Just because Obama has pledged to listen to other countries does not automatically mean that he won't also make America's voice heard. In fact, Obama specifically says this later in the interview: "We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world." (emphasis mine).

Shapiro then goes on to chide Obama for "apologizing" for former President Bush's use of the term Islamic fascism, for "equating Muslim terrorism with nonexistent terrorism by Jews and Christians", and for not being honest because he didn't call for the Muslim world to actively fight terrorism. Firstly, Obama never "apologized" for Bush's use of that term, he only explained why he believes it important not to paint any faith with a broad brush. Secondly, the blind eye that Shapiro turns toward terrorism committed by other religions throughout history is alarming. Thirdly, Obama has continually stated in speeches leading up to the election that one of his goals is to work with other nations, Pakistan included, to develop strategies to combat terrorism and their ability to gain access to weapons and funding. And Obama is the one not being honest?

Above it all, what Shapiro finds most sickening, is that Obama sees it as his job to "speak for the Muslim world, defending them from Americans' negative perceptions", and actually, I also find it troubling. I find it troubling that it is even necessary for the President to have to explain to us that the Muslim world is full of exceptional people, not simply terrorists. I find it troubling that this even needs to be addressed and quite indicative of the discourse of the last eight years, that a population need to be dissuaded from believing that an entire group of people do not all harbor ill will toward Americans.

However this is not why Shapiro is troubled. He is troubled that Obama is a "global imperialist" that seeks to not advance the interests of America but of the world. "Not all Muslims are “extraordinary people'," Shapiro writes, "and the interests of suffering Muslims do not always align with American interests."

What Shapiro views as a "global imperialist" is actually a figure who appears to understand that the decisions the United States makes, have a global impact. It is specifically the viewpoint that is advanced by Shapiro, that of advancing American interests at all costs, that has the result of discounting how the rest of the world is affected by such decisions. It is this viewpoint that supports ridding Iraq of a dictator who is a perceived threat to the United States without taking into account the potential blowback of millions of children growing up in a ravaged country with a hatred of those who destroyed their homeland. It is this mindset that fails to see that what may be in the world's interest, is also in America's interests as well. "Global Interest Imperialism dooms American exceptionalism," Shapiro concludes. Perhaps America's greater exceptionalism will come when we realize that our progress as a country, lies in advancing the human interests of the global community.

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