Jan 30, 2009

Never having to say you're sorry... 

Charles Krauthammer once again speaks "truth to power." Let's hope somebody's listening...
Every new president flatters himself that he, kinder and gentler, is beginning the world anew. Yet, when Barack Obama in his inaugural address reached out to Muslims by saying "to the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," his formulation was needlessly defensive and apologetic.

Is it "new" to acknowledge Muslim interests and show respect to the Muslim world? Obama doesn't just think so, he said so again to millions in his al-Arabiya interview, insisting on the need to "restore" the "same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago."

Astonishing. In these most recent 20 years -- the alleged winter of our disrespect of the Islamic world -- America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them. It engaged in five military campaigns, every one of which involved -- and resulted in -- the liberation of a Muslim people: Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Later on, Krauthammer delves into the pure fantasy/delusion that there was some type American-Muslim partnering going on "as recently as 20 or 30 years ago" by citing the blatantly obvious examples of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut (1983) and the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran (1979), both of which were driven by Islamic radicalism. He lists many recent examples of American intervention in Islamic nations that arguably bettered the lives of Muslims in those countries, and even mentions Somalia, where Americans came in to do nothing more than feed hungry people only to have their humanitarian efforts repaid by being shot to pieces. America had no designs on Somalia. We had no reason to be there other than finding the thought of human suffering terrible enough to do something about it. And yet we were hated - so you'll have to pardon me for thinking that it's not America that needs to strike any kind of apologetic tone here.

But what Krauthammer didn't mention is that from the United States' earliest interactions with Islam, we did not try to place those dealings into a religious framework. When Marines went to the Shores of Tripoli and fought the Barbary pirates - Ottoman Muslims - it wasn't due to religious differences. In fact, it was over American national security interests - namely the safety of American trading ships in the region - and done so at the head of a column of Muslims and Christians (mercenaries truthfully, but notably of both faiths) to reinstall Hamet Karamanli (a Muslim) to what he claimed was the throne that had been stolen by his brother that was rightfully his. To lift a line from Charlie Wilson's War attributed to the CIA's Gust Avrakatos, "America doesn't fight religious wars... that's why I like livin' there."

When you look at the historical record then, I think it becomes obvious that we're going about this all the wrong way. To make a broad and sweeping "reach to the Muslim world" is on par with saying "hey, all you Buddhists, we're going to assume you all think alike from now on," because places like Japan and China are EXACTLY THE SAME, obviously.

Now, we'll set aside - just for the moment - the fact that large portions of this "world" we are talking about reaching out to are willing to throw child-like tantrums and riots and commit murders in every corner of the planet because they didn't like a cartoon. And we'll remind the new Commander in Chief that he may not want to go to the well too many times touting his "Islamic roots," because - again - large portions of this "world" we are talking about reaching out to view the fact that he's NOT Islamic like his father as apostasy that mandates he be killed at the earliest opportunity. Once we've gotten past those two little issues, we come to the following: the way that two groups would usually begin such engagements is to establish contact between emissaries representing their leaders or the leaders themselves. We can't engage with the "Muslim world" at the head-of-state level because no such person exists on their side of the equation (and if he did, that would mean that the Caliphate had been reestablished, and now we're talking a whole different ballgame). The concerns of Saudi Arabia are not the concerns of Jordan are not the concerns of Indonesia are not the concerns of Uzbekistan etc etc. These are all Muslim countries, but with exceedingly different histories, peoples, and issues. If Sunnis and Shi'ites can't make up their minds about their religious differences (and let's not forget Sufis and Wahhabis and any other sects that are floating around out there), how in the name of Allah is America supposed to address Islam in some all-encompassing manner?

While we clearly can't divorce the "Islam" from places that name themselves "Islamic Republic of _____," why are we tying ourselves in knots trying to make that the start point for our relations with Islamic countries? We ought to be dealing with issues on a national basis, not a religious one (after all, aren't we the ones who bend over backwards to separate church and state?). Their religious sensibilities will come to the fore during the natural course of business after that, but this broad outreach to Islam at-large is curious by its very existence, and made even more so by OUR seeming insistence on it.

Governments deal with governments and religions deal with religions. A direct government-to-religion conversation is, by its very nature, largely impossible for secular nations because they essentially speak different languages. For those of you at this point who are about to pooh-pooh my pooh-poohing of the very concept of America dealing with international religions by saying "hey, what about the Vatican?," I'll tell you what about the Vatican. The Vatican is a state. It is its own country with its own government (the Holy See), and so it comes with a built in translator for governmental-to-religious conversations. This does not, however, mean that things don't get lost in that translation, as the Holy See is the "governing body" for a widely disparate group of people with world-wide dispersion. And remember that the Vatican only speaks for Catholics, not all of Christianity. So where is the "Muslim Vatican" and who is the "Muslim Pope?" If you believe like Mahmoud, he's been hiding in a well since the late ninth century waiting to pop out at the end of days. But if you're a Sunni, no dice on that one even. Which brings me back to my point about trying to engage all of Islam with a healthy dose of Hopenchange - it won't work until there is one point of contact on the far end of the phone call who speaks for the group. I don't see that guy. Do you?

Our dealings must therefore be with groups that are somewhat more uniformly organized and in more easily digestible chunks (preferably national, but regional or racial will sometimes work as well) than just "the Muslim world." I do not think that the President HIMSELF should go have a sit down with Ahmadinejad, but should he send a representative, are we to assume that Iran will speak for "the Muslim world?" Absolutely not. But an "apology" to Iran - or anyone else - will certainly do one thing: send a message of weakness to the WHOLE world, not just the Muslim one.

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