Obama's Risky Concession

June 4 must have some special place in the Barack Obama political calendar.

On June 4, 2009, the President delivered his much anticipated speech to the Muslim world.

Exactly a year previously, June 4, 2008, Obama spoke to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). That speech too was much anticipated. Barack Obama had just recently clinched the Democratic nomination. Many in the AIPAC audience were worried about this new candidate with the exotic name, a worry Obama jokingly acknowledged: "Let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening."

Critics mock Obama for so often speaking from a teleprompter. Obama does so because he parses his words so very exactly.

Candidate Obama set out to reassure. One promise in particular drew enthusiastic applause: "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

The next day, however, an Obama staffer told the press that Obama had not meant what the AIPAC attendees thought they had heard. Obama had only promised that Israel could retain a capital in Jerusalem, just as it had before 1967, and that the city would not be "divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967." That promise did not exclude the possibility that Palestinians too might have a capital in Jerusalem or rule over other portions of the city.

Critics mock Obama for so often speaking from a teleprompter. Obama does so because he parses his words so very exactly. It is never wise to listen to an Obama speech without the text in hand.

(In that same AIPAC speech, for example, Obama said this about Iran: "The danger from Iran is grave, it is real and my goal will be to eliminate this threat." Sounds tough, right? Of course, we do not always achieve our goals. And eliminating the "threat" from Iran is not the same thing as eliminating Iran's nuclear capacity. Perhaps a treaty promise by a nuclear Iran to behave itself nicely in future could be described as an elimination of the "threat.")

One Obama admirer explains the President's approach this way: Obama is always willing to make a rhetorical concession to buy goodwill. Rhetorical concession can be an effective device. Yet the device carries two serious risks.

The first is that people who think they have obtained an actual concession may feel burned when they discover the escape clause. One year after his AIPAC speech, Obama is signaling that he envisions consigning the Old City of Jerusalem to some kind of international regime:

All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when . . . Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.

Of course Jerusalem is already a place where people of all faiths can worship freely. Why invoke the future tense unless there is to be some kind of change in Jerusalem's status? If that is Obama's intention, the people who applauded his rhetorical concession at AIPAC last year will have every reason to feel deceived and betrayed.

The second risk to Obama's device of rhetorical concession is that some of these concessions may prove more binding than intended. Here again is the president in Cairo:

For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That's why I'm committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.

Since December, 2001, the U. S. government has tightly enforced rules against giving to groups that support terrorist activities. Earlier this year, officers of the largest Islamic charity in the United States were convicted of funneling US$12-million to Hamas. Other Islamic charities have been investigated as fronts for Hezbollah.

Many American Islamic groups have vociferously protested these prosecutions and investigations. As the head of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations complained to the Detroit News in 2007: "When assisting orphans in the region of the Middle East, Muslims will undoubtedly be aiding people who are related, somehow, to organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah . . . Even if a parent performed a terrorist act, are the sins of the parents visited on the sons and daughters?"

It seems incredible that President Obama would do anything that would allow the resumption of the money flow to Hamas and Hezbollah or to the families of suicide bombers. Yet the President has now enabled pressure groups to quote the President's own words back at his administration. A rhetorical concession often has real-world consequences -- in this case, potentially lethal consequences.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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