One of President Obama’s first official acts was to grant an interview to Al Arabiya, the Arabic-language television network that broadcasts worldwide. This signified, aides explained, the new page that Obama meant to turn in relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Just as he did last week in Europe, Obama began the conversation by criticizing America. Asked about relations between Israel and the Palestinians and the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy, President Obama said, “What I told [Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen.” Throughout the rest of the interview, Obama returned again and again to the word “respect,” stressing that his administration — unlike previous American administrations — would base relations with the Muslim world on “mutual respect.”
In Europe, the president returned to this leitmotif, telling his audience that “there have been times when America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” toward Europe. He went on to note that Europeans had responded with an anti-Americanism that “is at once casual but can also be insidious.” That sounds awfully high-mindedly evenhanded — except that in Obama’s telling, America’s arrogance comes first. If that were truly the case, who could blame the Europeans for feeling resentful?
Don’t hold your breath waiting for any European to acknowledge that they have been guilty of arrogance. And before giving Obama too much credit for humility, consider that the planted axiom of these declarations is that he is different. It was that ham-handed predecessor of his who blundered through the world, disrespecting allies, needlessly insulting enemies, and crashing through drawing rooms like the proverbial bull, or perhaps like a Texas steer. But as former ambassador John Bolton reminds us, during the glory days of the Clinton administration, French president François Mitterrand said this: “We are at war with America — a permanent war . . . a war without death. They are very hard, the Americans. They are voracious. They want undivided power over the world.” Compared with that, the most stinging rebuke to come out of the Bush administration — Rumsfeld’s swipe about “old Europe” — seems downright polite.
There’s nothing wrong with pleasant atmospherics, of course. And if Barack and Michelle Obama wowed the crowds in London and Prague, that’s nice. But what you might have missed in all the hyperventilating in the media about the new incarnation of Jack and Jackie was that President Obama was rebuffed by Europe. He asked the Europeans to pass stimulus bills like the one the Democrats passed in the United States. Germany’s Angela Merkel and the others turned that down flat. European nations have even graver problems with promised safety-net programs than we do, and they sensibly decided that further indebting themselves would aggravate rather than alleviate their troubles.
President Obama further requested that more troops be sent to Afghanistan. He wasn’t subtle about it, either. “Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone,” he said. “This is a joint problem; it requires a joint effort.” Adoring crowds notwithstanding, the Europeans refused that request as well. Oh wait. That’s not quite true. According to Fox News, “Belgium offered to send 35 military trainers and Spain offered 12.”
Back to relations with the Muslim world. Lest this slander pass into conventional wisdom, it must be protested. George W. Bush was never disrespectful to the Muslim world. He was extraordinarily careful to telegraph his respect for the Muslim faith — some thought to a fault. (“Why is it,” asked one wag, “that the only people who say Islam is a religion of peace are Christians?”) Bush made the Feast of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, an annual White House celebration with prominent Muslim guests. He arguably saved more Muslim lives through the African AIDS initiative than any other world leader could claim. Mrs. Bush made improving the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan her special project. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when this was not an obvious move, President Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. to telegraph to the nation that anger toward American Muslims would be a misplaced response to the atrocity.
The caricature of Bush as a heedless militarist and xenophobe — which no one is doing more to promote than the current president — is a libel.
There is one other troubling aspect to President Obama’s diplomatic debut. Being eager to ingratiate oneself with Europeans is an understandable liberal impulse. The left wing of the Democratic Party reveres European welfare states. But President Obama also bowed low (literally) before the king of Saudi Arabia. That was more than courtesy; it was abasement.