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 VICTORY COLUMN SPEECH
1) Candidate Barack Obama had supposedly made a presumptuous request to speak at the Berlin Wall and been denied (the Germans might later have regretted that turndown, since a year later Obama, tit-for-tat, declined an invitation to speak there on the 20th anniversary of the wall’s fall), and so he chose the Victory Column as his backdrop instead.
It was an ironic setting for a historic speech on global peace, since the monument is formed of gun barrels taken from conquered enemies, and it commemorates defeats of the Danish, Austrians, and French — as well as Nazi chest-thumping over the annexation of Austria. The monument is an icon to aggressive nationalism, which is why the French wished to destroy it after World War II.
2) The speech’s noble — and utopian — motif was that the “world” (“a world that stands as one”) was responsible for saving Berlin during the airlift and can come together to achieve such noble things again. Not mentioned was the fact that it was the United States Air Force, with help from Britain, that fed Berlin. Most of our other allies thought the airlift was either impossible or counterproductive. As for the Russians whose blockade had made the airlift necessary, they predicted failure in days. The airlift was a testament to unilateral American-British action, and to the failure of the U.N. or any other world body to save the Berliners.
3) Obama warned in that speech, “As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.” This Gore-like motif is controversial to say the least. I don’t think it is a historical fact that periodic droughts in Kansas have been proven to be due to global warming. “Shrinking coastlines” I think refers to mathematical projections, and is an overstatement concerning a possibly greater-than-average two-millimeter change during the 20th century. As to cars in Boston melting the Arctic ice caps, that too is unproven, as we witnessed this week with Al Gore’s various exaggerations about human activity as a cause of rapid polar melting.
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?