It’s not really surprising that President Obama told NASA administrator Charles Bolden that his highest priority should be “to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science . . . and math and engineering.” It fits with so much that we already knew about the president.
It is consistent with his wildly exaggerated concept of governmental and presidential power and competence. Samuel Johnson wrote: “How small, of all that human hearts endure / that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Mr. Obama believes the opposite — that his presidency can be a transformative moment not just for the nation, but for the world. He will halt global warming and stop the rise of the oceans, transition America to a green energy future, end the “cycle of boom and bust” in the economy, provide universal health care while spending less than before, cushion “underwater” mortgage holders without rewarding profligate borrowers, increase taxes on the “rich” without harming the middle class, solve the problem of excessive public debt by amassing more public debt, and so on.
How in the world would NASA help Muslim nations to “feel good” about themselves? Would NASA hold science fairs in Tripoli or Tehran? Produce and circulate propaganda films about Great Muslim Men (careful, never women) of Science? Stress our global debt to Muhammad ibn Masa al-Khwarizmi, the father of algebra? (That’s risky, since al-Khwarizmi reportedly learned his math from the Indians.) How would Mr. Obama’s NASA chief undertake to alter the civilizational self-esteem of a billion people?
Of course, it’s entirely possible (pace Bernard Lewis) that the Muslim world does not lack for self-esteem on the matter of science or anything else. Certainly scientific know-how has not been lacking in nuclear-armed Pakistan, or (would-be) nuclear Iran. Besides, hasn’t Mr. Obama heard? The whole self-esteem myth has been exploded. Though millions of tax dollars and God only knows how many wasted instructional hours have gone toward making American kids think they are really, really special, it turns out that there is zero correlation between such drilled self-esteem and academic performance. (See Scientific American, January 2005.)
The Obama directive to NASA also revealed a mental tic common to liberals — the tendency to universalize the African-American experience. Just as African Americans were denied their rights and dignity, goes this reasoning, so today fill-in-the-blank are being persecuted or demeaned — women, gays, Muslims, the handicapped, illegal immigrants, Palestinians, “people of color.”
But this line of reasoning impedes rather than advances understanding. The African-American experience in America was actually very different from that of women, gays, the handicapped, illegal immigrants, or others here, to say nothing of the experience of Palestinians or “people of color” worldwide. Invoking the emotionally charged civil-rights paradigm closes the door on nuance and context and encourages dogmatism.
To treat the Muslim world as a vast ocean of African Americans in need of respect and encouragement from us is both arrogant and incredibly solipsistic. In fact, large swaths of the Muslim world feel inexpressibly superior to us — particularly morally and spiritually. Until cold terror forced them to accept American servicemen on their soil, the Saudis kept “infidel” pollution to the barest minimum in the home of the prophet. That wasn’t an expression of inferiority. Osama bin Laden boasted in 2000 that he had defeated the Soviet Empire and that it would be a small matter to defeat the American one. Again, he may have been deluded, but he was not a candidate for assertiveness training. Nearly every Muslim child is instructed that his is the true faith, superior in every way to the errors that came before — Judaism and Christianity — and infinitely above paganism or atheism. Jihadis are taught that their shining pure religion requires no less than the mass murder of infidels and unbelievers.
It might just be that Muslim self-confidence is more dangerous to us than imagined Muslim feelings of inadequacy. But in any case, solicitude about the feelings of individuals cannot constitute a foreign policy. Muslim nations, like other nations, are motivated by advantage and influenced by perceptions of strength and weakness. The president has absolutely no control over the way Muslims feel about themselves — but he has every power over the way they perceive us.