David Frum is absolutely correct to reject the notion of addressing a unified “Muslim World,” especially by elevating Egypt’s political and cultural system as its representative. However, if the President can adeptly navigate the numerous and contradictory elements that have collectively—but not individually—defined the country’s past, he might be able to encourage a more productive dialogue concerning the diverse, and often paradoxical, elements that have similarly shaped the “Muslim World.”
Now, I think the specific argument Henry uses is a fairly convincing one, but I would also add that Frum’s argument is perfectly objectionable in its naive interpretation of the world as composed primarily of clashing ideologies. Certainly, there’s some small element of truth to this, but I think that Bush’s tragically failed efforts at democracy promotion by casting far the light of freedom has shown the limits of this thinking. That is, there’s simply no escaping the geopolitical reality that Egpyt is, as Frum correctly notes, “an important US ally.” It’s true, Egypt is hardly an examplar of social and civil liberty, but the point is that’s what we have to work with. Picking a country whose government and society more closely resemble a Western democracy might more accurately communicate our ideals, but it certainly won’t make Egypt any less strategically vital to US interests. This neoconservative instict to close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and yell “la-la-la-la” does not actually remove thorny issues.
What’s more, delivering a speech in Indonesia won’t make Egypt more like Indonesia. Sure, it offers some marginal — and decidedly unconvincing — enticement for reform, but fails to account for the fact that Indonesia and Egypt have very different geopolitical considerations. Highlighting Indonesia’s more democratic society won’t change the fact that Egypt is in the Persian Gulf geopolitically resembles a Persian Gulf state and Indonesia is in the Pacific Ocean, that they have wildly different economies and interests, and that these facts have shaped their political systems.