In his speech last week in Cairo, President Barack Obama proclaimed he was a "student of history." But despite Obama's image as an Ivy- League-
educated intellectual, he lacks historical competency, both in facts and interpretation.
Candidate Obama proclaimed then that during World War II his great-uncle had helped liberate Auschwitz, and that his grandfather knew fellow American troops that had entered Auschwitz and Treblinka. Both are impossible. The Americans didn't free either Nazi death camp.
Much of what Obama said to thousands of Germans during his Victory Column speech in Berlin last summer was also ahistorical. He began, "I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city." He apparently forgot that for the prior eight years, the official faces of American foreign policy in Germany were Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice -- both African-Americans.
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In the same speech, Obama seemed to suggest that the world had come to together to save Berlin during the Airlift. In fact, it was almost an entirely American and British effort -- written off by most observers as hopeless and joined only by a handful of Western allies when the improbable lift looked like it might succeed.
In the recent Cairo speech, Obama's historical allusions were either misleading or incomplete. He suggested that today's Middle East tension was fed by the legacy of European colonialism and the Cold War that had reduced nations to proxies.
But the great colonizers of the Middle East were the Ottoman Muslims, who for centuries ruled with an iron fist. The 20th-century movements of Baathism, Pan-Arabism and Nasserism -- largely homegrown totalitarian ideologies -- did far more damage over the last half-century to the Middle East than the legacy of European colonialism.
Obama also claimed that "Islam ... carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment." While medieval Islamic culture was impressive and ensured the survival of a few classical texts -- often through the agency of Arabic-speaking Christians -- it had little to do with the European rediscovery of classical Greek and Latin values. Europeans, Chinese and Hindus, not Muslims, invented most of the breakthroughs Obama credited to Islamic innovation.
Obama also insisted that "Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Córdoba during the Inquisition." Yet the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478; by then Córdoba had long been reconquered by Spanish Christians, and was governed as a staunchly Christian city.
In reference to Iraq, Obama promised that "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." Is he unaware of how the United States imposed democracies after World War II? Indeed, it is hard to think of too many democratic governments that did not emerge from violence -- including our own.
Obama also stated: "For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights." With all due respect to our president, this assertion is again not fully accurate. The only thing that ended slavery in the United States was the Civil War, which saw some 600,000 Americans -- the vast majority of them white -- lost in a violent struggle to ensure that nearly half the country would not remain a slave-owning society. Also, the massive urban riots of the 1960s and 1970s were certainly violent.
This list of distortions could be easily expanded. Obama, in elegant fashion, may casually invoke the means of politically correct history for the higher ends of contemporary reconciliation.
But it is a bad habit. Eloquence and good intentions exempt no one from the truth of the past -- Obama included.
E-mail Hanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES