Obama’s Cairo Address, June 4, 2009
Obama started off by framing past and present tensions between Muslims and the West largely in the context of explicit and implied Western culpability: past European colonialism, and the moral equivalence of the Cold War and disruptive Westernized globalization.
In a pattern that would become all too familiar in the next seven years, Obama reviewed his own familial Muslim pedigree. This was his attempt to persuade Islam that a president of the United States, no less, now uniquely stood astride the East–West divide with a proverbial foot in both America and the Middle East.
Obama then rattled off a series of relativist, on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand, split-the-difference remedies to the current tensions with radical Islamism (all couched in vague euphemisms). The proposition was that the West should accept blame, and so should the sometimes culpable Islamic world. Only then would good compromises follow — given the assumption that conflict always arises out of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than that the guiltier side of a dispute knows precisely why it has chosen an aggressive and hostile path.
Seven years later, Obama’s outreach and his successive lengthy recitals of all the bad things America has done in the world and all the good America has done to encourage and placate Muslims (including redirecting NASA to the agenda of Muslim outreach) had come to nothing.
Indeed, the years of Obama’s presidency saw a sharp uptick in jihadist attacks against Europe and the United States, the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the genocide in Syria, and a series of appeasing gestures that spiked tensions, from the false red line in Syria to the bombing of and skedaddle from Libya to the disastrous and deliberate laxity in diplomatic security that culminated in the tragedy in Benghazi. Obama left office having alienated the moderate Sunni Arab nations, appeased an anti-Western Iran, and abdicated American power in the Middle East. Calm did not follow. For Middle Easterners, the Obama era meant that the United States was a lousy friend and a harmless foe, the common denominator being that one could ignore the pretensions of such a naive rhetorician.
For Middle Easterners, the Obama era meant that the United States was a lousy friend and a harmless foe.
A realist might have asked Obama, “If the president of the United States did not believe in the singularity of his nation, then why in the world would foreigners?” And if the nominal head of the West contextualized his culture when abroad, then why wouldn’t its autocratic enemies see that concession as weakness to be exploited rather than magnanimity to be reciprocated?
The Trump Antithesis
Donald Trump’s speech in Poland was an implicit corrective to Barack Obama’s Cairo speech. Whereas Obama had blamed the West for many of Islam’s dilemmas, Trump praised the singular history and culture of the West. (His implicit assumptions might have been that “better than the alternative” was good enough, and American sins are those of humankind, but its remedies are uniquely Western.)
Whereas Obama listed supposed cultural achievements of Islam (most of them of dubious historicity), Trump rattled off examples of Western exceptionalism, its unmatched culture, values, and concrete achievements, all of them persuasive:
We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.
While Obama was in an Islamic country and Trump in a Western one during these respective speeches, the difference in tones transcended location and marked antithetical historic strains of Western culture. Obama believed that the crisis of the West originated in its arrogant, “high horse” historic overreach, and clingerism; this hubris demanded a corrective deference to equally brilliant or indeed superior alternate cultural paradigms.
It never would occur to Obama that immigration (a concrete arbiter of culture) is a one-way pathway for a reason. Muslims seek out Europe and the United States to relocate, not vice versa. Immigrants seek to live among non-Muslims rather than with only Muslims — again, for a reason.
The world outside the West depends on Western-driven technology — again, not the other way around. The top 20 universities in the world are not in the Middle East, Africa, China, or Latin America. Western influence that transcends its population and geography is the logical result of a system that promotes self-criticism and rationalism, free expression, market capitalism, the rule of law, and consensual government rather than gender apartheid, tribalism, autocracy, statism, and religious intolerance.
There is again a reason why there is not a single church in Riyadh but plenty of mosques in the West, and why blasphemy or being gay can get you killed in Iran but not in Dayton, Ohio. Muslims can walk into the Vatican; not so Christians into Mecca.
Trump had his own but quite different worries, namely that the West should rightly be more, not less, confident and assertive: “Our adversaries, however, are doomed because we will never forget who we are. And if we don’t forget who are, we just can’t be beaten. Americans will never forget. The nations of Europe will never forget.”
Trump saw complacence, laxity, and perhaps even decadence as the crisis of the West.
Trump saw complacence, laxity, and perhaps even decadence as the crisis of the West. In historical terms, Trump’s speechwriters would say that the Greek city-state lost at Chaeronea in a way it had not 142 years earlier at Salamis — because of an insidious enervation of will, and because laxity largely became a dividend of material bounty and license. In Periclean fashion, to avert such decline, each generation must pass on more than what it inherited:
The Warsaw Uprising] heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.
Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested. Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory. . . .
I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.
From the pessimistic Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to the glum Roman critics like Petronius, Tacitus, Juvenal, and Suetonius to the German nihilists such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler, the inherent challenge of the West was rarely the permanent end of freedom and material wealth. Instead, the difficulty has been largely that we have the burden to use properly our bounty and must decide how to handle unchecked personal liberty and comfort.
Capitalism enriches a society but also risks enervating the senses and the spirit by shrinking human aspirations into material acquisitiveness. Consensual government entails responsibilities as well as rights — if it is not to descend into individual excess as citizens forget that they often should not do what they are legally entitled to do. In the Western war between personal liberty and mandated equality, hoi oligoi struggle to convince hoi polloi that they are not the enemies of the people but their co-benefactors, even when many among the former care little for the interests of the many.
Trump is president at a time when only about 63 percent of the American work force is employed. Entitlements are at unprecedented levels and are increasingly divorced from demonstration of undeniable need. Fury breaks out not from cutbacks in largess, but from modest decreases in promised but unsustainable increases.
The law is seen an encroachment on personal expression and thus ignored when it demands sacrifice. Poverty is redefined not so much as material want but as coveting something that someone wealthier does have but otherwise does not need.
Logic is the key to knowledge, but when it poses as the final arbiter of all natural inquiry without deference to the mysteriousness of god, it creates a self-destructive Oedipal arrogance that man can become his own deity. In such a landscape, how does such a civilization of individuals so eager to live the good life defend itself against a wretched jihadist so ready to die in order to welcome a sexual paradise to come?
How does one give up urban metrosexuality and the world of Pajama Boy to change diapers and raise children?
In a world of Facebook and Google, why would a U.S. Ranger be admired for his physical strength and elemental courage? And in a Western world where the government declares it is not just the arbiter of fairness but also the deliverer of equal results, what corner of life is left untouched from the all-powerful and moralistic state?
Byzantium perished not from a dearth of Greek Fire, but from a dearth of people willing to fight from inside its walls against the hundreds of thousands below, each one promised material pleasures in the hereafter for killing Christian Westerners. How is a suburbanite expected to die in a god-awful place like Fallujah, when he is told that computers and lasers make the dirty war of the past obsolete?
Trump should not have had a need to deliver such a self-evident but now rare message.
The billionaire, thrice-married, and creature-of-luxury Donald Trump, in his 70th year, was warning the West in Poland that precisely because it is very rich, extremely wealthy, singularly leisured, and technologically sophisticated, it faces the most peril — amid failed enemies who hate those who are more successful for encouraging their own taboo desires for something that they cannot create.
In sum, Trump’s anti-Cairo message is that only a disciplined, strong West — confident in its past and sure of its present success — will deter enemies, appeal to neutrals, and keep friends. Trump should not have had a need to deliver such a self-evident but now rare message. That he alone had the courage to state the obvious — and was criticized for doing so — reminds us that the corrective to our Western malady is seen as the problem, not the cure.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.