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?
3) “For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights.” During the 1860s, more than 600,000 Americans died over slavery in America’s bloodiest war, which resulted in universal citizenship; during the 1960s and 1970s, racial turmoil over matters of racial equality was not nonviolent.
THE WEST POINT SPEECH
1) “Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive.” Obama did not cite a single specific request for more troops that was denied by the Pentagon during Bush’s time in office. One might fault the Bush administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the problem was largely a command theory of “light footprint,” which sought not to alienate indigenous populations through a large, obtrusive American presence. So far there is no evidence of a denied troop request between 2001 and 2009.
2) “I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan, and the extremist safe-havens in Pakistan.” That obvious strategy predated Obama, who inherited from his predecessor everything from Predator drone attacks to carrot-and-stick diplomacy with the Pakistanis.
3) “This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” This is, of course, true, but leaves out the inconvenient fact that the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were — like most al-Qaeda operatives — Sunni Arabs who came to the borderlands from somewhere else, supported by Gulf private money and energized by radical teaching that emanates from Gulf and Cairo Wahhabi mosques. The epicenter of radical Islam is not Waziristan. Rather, it is found at the nexus between petro-money and radical Islamic teaching in the Arab world.
4) “In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly.” That may be true of the Carter and Reagan administrations, or the Clinton tolerance for a nuclear Pakistan, but it is hard to accept as a description of the Bush administration’s eight years of ongoing massive American military and economic aid, public pressure for democratic reform, and close consultation with India and Pakistan about regional disagreements. The logical corollary should have been praise for the Bush administration’s holistic engagement and rebuke for the Carter-era policy (continued under Reagan) that armed Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviets without much worry over the blowback in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.
5) “As a country, we are not as young — and perhaps not as innocent — as we were when Roosevelt was president.” In fact, American diplomacy is far more transparent than it ever was during the Roosevelt administration, which engaged in all sorts of secret accords affecting millions, including the future of most of Eastern Europe.
THE NOBEL PRIZE SPEECH
1) Obama suggested that “In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles.” Bush made an analogous argument that the desire for freedom is innate in the heart of everyone as a result of being human. Nevertheless, the formal articulation of human rights is an entirely Western concept — as Obama inadvertently acknowledged earlier by citing the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This is a U.N. proclamation that was drafted by Westerners and based on ideas found in the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the U.S. Constitution (1788) and Bill of Rights (1791), and which is still opposed by many Islamic countries because of its secularism. It is true, not false, that upholding human rights is a Western principle, one lamentably not shared by most people on the globe, particularly among present members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
2) “These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded.” The Crusades, in terms of history’s catalogue of bloody wars and deaths, were a minor affair, especially in comparison to the turmoil of the much earlier Islamic expansions through North Africa and Iberia, or the later savage Ottoman inroads into Asia Minor and Eastern Europe.
3) “Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace.” Not exactly. “Finally,” I think, is not an accurate adverb for a mere 60-some years of peace in Europe (excluding things like Milosevic’s war against the Croatians, Bosnians, and Kosovars). So far, Europeans haven’t even matched the prior, century-long achievement of the Congress of Vienna (1815–1914).
THE OBAMA FORMULA
In these minor and major historical distortions, there are two recurrent themes. The most obvious is that George W. Bush has been culpable, and that a far more sensitive and astute Obama is here to set things right. Historical citations will be crafted, in deductive fashion, to support that thesis.
But there is a second sort in which the self-proclaimed global healer Obama marshals history for noble purposes. And in service to his inspirational global ecumenism, the president apparently feels free to twist and fudge the past in order to suggest that our cultures are all roughly equal, with pasts that are likewise both good and bad, and thus we now need to bond and unify with appreciation of one another’s differences.
Obama feels that reverence for both the facts and spirit of history is not as important as that noble aim. If, for example, Muslims can be assured that the West has been just as culpable as they have been, and if they can be praised by unduly exaggerating their past cultural achievements, then perhaps the Islamic world will see that the United States is a broker of good will.
The alternatives to Obama’s constant historical revisionism would be to be quiet about history’s often disturbing truths — or to admit that the present globalization, in terms of economics, politics, culture, and military affairs, is largely an embrace of Westernization and the result of the unique dynamism and morality of Western culture itself.
To articulate the latter truth abroad would be chauvinistic and impolitic. To be quiet about it would be diplomatic. But to distort it for noble intentions has been nevertheless ignoble.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the editor of the forthcoming Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome.