Renouncing Bush's Worldview

By Dan Froomkin
12:30 PM ET, 06/ 5/2009

A whole speech about Islam, and President Obama didn't use the word "terrorists" even once?

Obama's conservative critics, along with some media observers, are up in arms -- which is a real testament to how effectively the Bush administration linked the one word to the other.

Indeed, it was a key part of its concerted campaign to stoke the public fears that made possible a global war that, in terms of scope and tactics, went far beyond anything that would have otherwise been remotely acceptable to the American public.

Here's how Politico's Josh Gerstein described Obama's offense:

In a nearly 6,000-word address Thursday extending an olive branch to the Muslim world, President Barack Obama managed never to utter the one word that comes to mind most often when many Americans think about Islam: terrorism.

Obama's attempt to "decouple Islam entirely from those who perpetrate violence" was "just one aspect of his speech that seems sure to draw fire from conservatives, and particularly those who are strong supporters of Israel, Gerstein wrote.

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer repeatedly marveled -- and not in a good way -- at Obama's "refusal" to use the term.

Or as Glenn Kessler and Jacqueline L. Salmon write in The Washington Post, "his efforts to use new language to recast old grievances have already prompted debate and consternation in some quarters."

But Obama's careful word choices were another major step in unraveling one of the most toxic rhetorical legacies of the Bush era.

Daniel Levy writes for TPM Cafe:

Gone was the arrogance and lecturing....Out too was the purple finger version of democratization and even the traditional American condescension toward the Palestinian narrative. But perhaps most remarkably of all, the words 'terror' or 'terrorism' did not pass the president's lips. Here was a leader and a team around him smart enough to acknowledge that certain words have become too tainted, too laden with baggage, their use has become counter-productive, today the Global War on Terror framing was truly laid to rest.

Robert Dreyfuss blogs for the Nation:

[B]y not mentioning "terror" or "terrorism" in his 55-minute address, Obama has formally turned the corner on the post-9/11 nightmare conjured by President Bush and his ilk. If Obama sustains this, it has enormous potential not only to improve US relations with the Muslim world. It will utterly alter the discourse inside the United States, which for nearly eight long years has been distorted by the fear-mongering, Muslim-bashing, Osama-inflating, homeland security-worrying neoconservatives and their political allies.

He adds:

Interesting, isn't it, that...the only criticism of the Cairo speech is coming from (1) the neocons and their allies, and (2) Osama bin Laden, who is clearly panicking about Obama's play for mainstream and conservative Muslim opinion. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

(See also today's Cartoon Watch.)

Gary Kamiya writes for Salon that

George W. Bush's "war on terror," which culminated in his invasion of Iraq, foolishly treated all militant Islamist groups as America's enemies and made the paranoid neoconservative idea of a "clash of civilizations" a self-fulfilling prophecy...

Fanatics like al-Qaida have little standing in the Arab/Muslim world, and Bush's ill-advised conflation of them with groups that do have popular followings only enhanced their popularity. By rejecting "terrorism" as the defining term for America's Middle East policy, and by abandoning Bush's amorphous and unwinnable "war" against it, Obama instantly recast America's entire relationship with the Middle East. The era of moralistic and self-defeating name-calling in U.S. Middle East foreign policy appears to be over.

Steven Waldman writes for Beliefnet: "Obama's speech reminds us that 9/11 needn't have led to a conflict between the West and Islam. It's a reminder of the road not taken."

So what went wrong? Waldman says Bush himself "maintained a generous attitude toward Islam," but

the base of his party, religious conservatives, did not -- and Bush went along. A major Protestant leader referred to Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile," another called Islam a "vile, wicked religion." Bush's spokesmen would occasionally aver that the President disagreed with such sentiments but their [sic] was no indignation and before long anti-Islamic rhetoric became absolutely commonplace in evangelical circles.

When General Gerry Boykin made his famous comments that his God was "a real God" and that of Islam "was an idol." Boykin was not fired and, indeed, was involved in torture policy. It turns out, during this time, the military intelligence briefings were arriving on Bush's desk adorned with Bible quotes. Muslims who believed this was a Holy War against them, it turns out, had at least some evidence for that notion.

All of that paled in comparison to the prolonged Iraq war and the photos from Abu Ghraib -- including evidence that torturers specifically used mockery of Islam as a torture technique.

Welcome back, America, says the New York Times editorial board:

When President Bush spoke in the months and years after Sept. 11, 2001, we often — chillingly — felt as if we didn't recognize the United States. His vision was of a country racked with fear and bent on vengeance, one that imposed invidious choices on the world and on itself. When we listened to President Obama speak in Cairo on Thursday, we recognized the United States.

Another aspect of Obama's speech that was particularly galling to his critics was his attempt to see both sides of various issues -- particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although he insisted that America's bond to Israel is "unbreakable," Obama spoke about the Israelis and Palestinians with an even-handedness that would have been unthinkable coming from Bush. And that was Bush in public. (Another point Obama made was that -- in contrast to, say, the secret deals Bush reached with the Israelis -- "America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs.")

Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times:

On one level, President Obama's speech succeeded in reaching out to Muslims across the Middle East, winning widespread praise for his respectful approach, his quotations from the Koran and his forthright references to highly fraught political conflicts.

But Mr. Obama's calibrated remarks also asked listeners in a region shaken by hatred to take two steps that have long been anathema: forgetting the past and understanding an opposing view. For a president who proclaimed a goal of asking people to listen to uncomfortable truths, it was clear that parts of his speech resonated deeply with his intended audience and others fell on deaf ears, in Israel as well as the Muslim world.

Marc Lynch blogs for Foreign Policy:

I don't think I have ever heard any American politician, much less President, so eloquently, empathetically, and directly equate the suffering and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians....

He posed sharp challenges to Israelis and Palestinians alike, directly addressing the realities of Palestinian life under occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza while also empathizing with Israeli fears. He positioned the U.S. as the even-handed broker it needs to be.

In this country, critics more accustomed to the Neocon, pick-a-side world view disparaged this as the worst kind of moral equivalency.

And the most ardent Bush/Cheney dead-enders lashed out by calling Obama's comments -- particularly those in which he acknowledged that emotional reactions at the highest levels of government led America after 9/11 to "act contrary to our traditions and our ideals" -- essentially treasonous.

Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, said on CNN of this country's terrorist enemies:

I'm sure they took heart from the president going onto foreign soil and saying that in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States abandoned -- fell short of its values.

Former Bush speechwriter (and torture defender) Marc Thiessen writes in a USA Today op-ed:

On foreign soil, he accused our intelligence community of committing torture — validating years of al-Qaeda propaganda in the region. He talked about closing Guantanamo Bay without any defense of the good men and women who run it — even though his own attorney general, Eric Holder, has admitted it was a model prison.

Instead, he echoed al-Qaeda's calumnies against our military and intelligence communities — and did so in a foreign land. This was shameful and unprecedented. They deserved better from their commander in chief.

Of course, all Obama was speaking was the plain truth. And all of this takes me back to June 2005, when -- in what became the ultimate symbol of the Republican party's crass politicization of national security -- Bush political guru Karl Rove suggested that liberals sympathized with the enemy and were intent on endangering American troops.

Some conservative critics took a different tack -- arguing that Obama hadn't really departed that far from Bush's principles.

Blogger Hugh Hewitt complained of the "false idea" that the ideas in Obama's speech "represent a huge break with the Bush Administration's policies with regard to Islam. Of course they don't."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes:

One benefit of the Obama Presidency is that it is validating much of George W. Bush's security agenda and foreign policy merely by dint of autobiographical rebranding. That was clear enough yesterday in Cairo, where President Obama advertised "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." But what he mostly offered were artfully repackaged versions of themes President Bush sounded with his freedom agenda. We mean that as a compliment, albeit with a couple of large caveats.

And indeed, as David Corn blogs for Congressional Quarterly: "It is not hard to imagine George W. Bush, as president, saying" some of "those same words."

Yet millions of people at home and abroad would not have believed his claim to have no interest in sustaining a US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else. Why? Well, if you don't know, you slept through the first eight years of this century. The fine words that Bush did frequently speak about promoting democracy abroad and protecting the world from tyrants and terrorists were undermined by his misrepresentations of the actual threats (see WMDs in Iraq) and his actions (see rushing to war in Iraq when the UN weapons inspections process was under way and working).

So what's next? Jeffrey Fleishman writes in the Los Angeles Times:

The words were a start, but the question here remains: Is Obama the face of genuine change in U.S. foreign policy or will he merely offer a sparkle of promise before he is overwhelmed by troubles from the bombed alleys of the Gaza Strip to the mountains of Afghanistan?

In a roundtable interview after his speech yesterday with regional reporters, Obama faced repeated question about what he would do if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected American demands to stop expanding Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. Obama said he had faith.

I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu will recognize the strategic need to deal with this issue. And that in some ways he may have an opportunity that a labor or more left leader might not have. There's the famous example of Richard Nixon going to China. A Democrat couldn't have gone to China. A liberal couldn't have gone to China. But a big, anti-communist like Richard Nixon could open that door.

He refused to set a timetable:

Netanyahu has only been in office, what is it, a month and a half? I mean, since the government formed. I mean, he was elected April 1st. So, two months. We've been waiting 60 years. So we maybe might just want to try a few more months before everybody starts looking at doomsday scenarios.

Obama had tough words for the Palestinian Hamas faction, which currently rules Gaza.

If Hamas's approach is based on the idea that Israel will cease to exist, that's an illusion. And what that means is that they are more interested in talk than in results. If they are serious about delivering a Palestinian state, then they should renounce violence, accept the framework provided by the previous agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist. That still leaves enormous room for them to negotiate on a whole host of issues. But at minimum they can't provide the results for the people they claim to represent if they're not acknowledging reality. So, you know, this is really a decision for Hamas to make.

And, asked why he hadn't made his first major speech to Muslims in Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood, Obama replied:

I thought it was important to come to Cairo because I think, if we're honest, the greatest tension when it comes to the relationship between the Muslim world and the United States in recent years has centered around the Middle East. In some ways, going to Indonesia would almost be cheating -- (laughter) -- because I would have a home court advantage.

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