Monday, August 16, 2010


A Stubborn Man Without Conviction
Obama votes "present" on the Ground Zero mosque.

"President Obama delivered a strong defense on Friday night of a proposed Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero in Manhattan," the New York Times reported Saturday.
Or did he?
"Mr. Obama stepped squarely into the thorny debate," the Times reported:
"I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," the president said in remarks prepared for the annual White House iftar, the sunset meal breaking the day's [Ramadan] fast.
But, he continued: "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."
Right-wingers howled. National Review's Andy McCarthy: "The President Stands With Sharia." Commentary's Jennifer Rubin: "This is nothing short of an abomination." Left-wingers swooned. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent:
Many opponents of the project have been employing a clever little dodge. They say they don't question the group's legal right to build it under the Constitution. Rather, they say, they're merely criticizing the group's decision to do so, on the grounds that it's insensitive to 9/11 families and will undercut the project's goal of reconciliation. The group has the right to build the center, runs this argument, but they are wrong to exercise it. In response, Obama could have merely cast this dispute as a Constitutional issue, talked about how important it is to hew to that hallowed document, and moved on.
But Obama went much further than that. He asserted that we must "welcome" and "respect" those of other faiths, suggesting that the group behind the center deserves the same, and said flat out that anything less is un-American. . . .
Obama's speech transcends the politics of the moment, and will go down as a defining and perhaps even a breakthrough performance. Obama recognized that this dispute is a seminal one that goes to the core of our running argument about pluralism and minority rights and to the core of who we are. He understood that the gravity of the moment required an equally large and momentous response. And he delivered.
Sargent called the speech "one of the finest moments" of Obama's presidency. That's a matter of opinion, but there's no question it was one of the shortest moments. As the Times reported Sunday:
In brief comments [Saturday] during a family trip to the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Obama said he was not endorsing the New York project, but simply trying to uphold the broader principle that government should "treat everybody equally," regardless of religion.
"I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," Mr. Obama said. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."
A clever little dodge indeed! Once again, Barack Obama votes "present."
Politico, meanwhile, reports that by Saturday the White House was "insisting Obama wasn't backing off [his] remarks Friday night." Which is true, if you take those remarks at face value. The president did not in fact express an opinion about "the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there." He merely recited First Amendment pieties.
So why did nearly everybody construe the Friday remarks as a strong endorsement of the Ground Zero mosque? Blame the professional left, which, in its characteristic neo-McCarthyite style, has sought to portray all criticism of the mosque project as, to quote Sargent, "un-American" and the critics as an undifferentiated lunatic fringe that rejects the First Amendment, at least as it applies to Islam.
Obama is a man of the left, so when he deployed the left's rhetoric about the First Amendment, allies and adversaries alike assumed that he also intended to level this accusation at the mosque's critics. They might well have been right about this, but if so, the president quickly made clear he does not have the courage of his convictions.
In doing so, and despite himself, he managed to make an important point. It is not a "clever little dodge" but a principled position to say that while the mosque's developers have a right to build it near Ground Zero, doing so is not the right thing to do. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from criticism. It is no more an assault on the First Amendment to argue that the placement of this mosque is unwise and offensive than it is (to take a current example) to say the same of Laura Schlessinger's use of the so-called N-word on her radio show.
Obama, however, made this point in a way that showed him to be small and weak, offering it not as a defense of the mosque's critics but of himself against them. Imagine if on Friday he had not only pandered to his guests by defending their constitutional rights but also challenged them by saying forthrightly what he acknowledged evasively on Saturday: that building a mosque near Ground Zero may be unwise even though the law clearly allows it. That would have been presidential.
Instead we got what sounded like a strong endorsement, followed by a backpedaling denial that it was any such thing, followed in turn by a denial that the earlier denial was backpedaling. The president stands behind everything he said but denies that he said much of anything.
Barack Obama is a stubborn man without conviction.

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