Lee Smith makes a reasonable point in his Slate article on Obama’s Cairo speech. He criticizes Obama for speaking across borders to address to Muslims as such (rather than Arabs or, better, Egyptians/Jordanians/etc.) and insists that this encourages Islamist fantasies about a supranational caliphate when we really need to be reinforcing the nation-state system in the Middle East and encouraging Muslims to render unto Caesar. But his argument contains the seeds of its own rebuttal, at least as it pertains to Obama’s approach. He writes:
Islam, despite the simplicity of its profession of faith—there is no God but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God—is an esoteric creed with more than a millennium of jurisprudence and philosophy behind it. Islam is complicated. But Khomeini reduced this all to one big idea: Being a Muslim means opposition to the West, especially the United States.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. If a posture of resistance is the unifying force for Islamist political identity, then blurring the outlines of the object of this resistance, the United States, could weaken or dilute or confound this resistance. It might raise the psychic profile of the national identities that would be an antidote to this transnational fantasy. After all, as Smith himself writes, the Islamic world is fabulously complicated by a bunch of things, some religious, some not. If this historical-cultural-political multiplicity is, as he implies, the natural state of Islam, then lowering the American profile as a unifying enemy might allow these other forces to assume their natural priority, no matter what obama says in a single speech. I’m not saying this will work, but it’s a long slog in any case. One artfully conciliatory speech would probably move us closer to Smith’s own goals than a comparable portion of moral clarities. If the last eight years have taught us anything, it’s that just because the terms of your speech imply certain noble outcomes, it doesn’t mean those outcomes will actually come out. If Obama is successful, it won’t be because he’s transcended geopolitics. It’ll be because he’s brought it back.