What struck me most about Barack Obama's speech today in Cairo is what was missing: Iraq. He didn't skip Iraq entirely, but his discussion of it was perfunctory and incomplete. He said:
Let me also address the issue of Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be."
Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future - and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012. We will help Iraq train its Security Forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.
That's rather extraordinary. In a speech about freedom and democracy, America and Islam, Obama glides right past the most remarkable development in the region in decades: "Iraq's democratically-elected government." He mentions it only in passing, to note that he's keeping his campaign promised to remove troops.
Iraq today is a model for many of those things Obama says he hopes to see in the region -- women right's, religious freedom, the defeat of "violent extremism," economic development and opportunity, and, yes, democracy. It's an imperfect model, to be sure, but it's a model nonetheless. And the president does himself and the country -- in particular our soldiers -- no favors by ignoring that reality. No one is asking him to defend a war he opposed. But the fact that he can even use that phrase -- Iraq's democratically-elected government -- might have caused him to acknowledge that America's intervention there, despite the tremendous difficulties, has made Iraq a country that practices many of those things that he seeks for the rest of the region.
There were many other problems with the speech. I'll focus on two. First, women's rights. He began, as he often does, with a straw man. "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality." And who, exactly, says that women who make that choice are not equal? The objection from "some in the West" comes not because women make that choice but because in many places they are denied an opportunity to do so.
For all of his talk about the need for candor and honesty, Obama called for women's equality in platitudes and the only country he singled out for criticism? His own. "Issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive. In Iran, they're stoned on suspicion of adultery. In Pakistan, politicians publicly defend "honor killings" of young girls who have the audacity to choose their own husbands.
Those women are struggling for equality.
Perhaps the most curious passage was this one: "Given our interdependence, any world order which elevates any nation or group of people above any other will inevitably fail." This is nonsense, of course, as Obama seems to recognize several sentences later when he says that America will "relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security."
Does Obama mean to suggest that the United States should not be "elevated" over, say, North Korea? Or state sponsors of terror like Syria and Iran? Indeed, the opposite of Obama's formulation is closer to the truth: Any world order that does not elevate some nations or groups of people over others will inevitably fail. And should.
What's so vexing about Obama's gleeful rejection of American exceptionalism (again) in the context of American power is that he embraces it in other ways. The United States, he frequently argues, must lead by example. Americans must close Guantanamo and end torture, he says, because "we must never alter our principles" or "act contrary to our ideals." And those principles and ideals make America something worth emulating -- they make it exceptional.