While President Obama was talking tough at the United Nations and being charming “eye candy” with Barbara Walters and her gang on “The View,” the former prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, was being wise on a round of appearances on American political shows. His message: “The United States … should sort of give up on being loved.”
“If that’s your ambition as still the world’s greatest power,” Blair said on MSNBC, “give up on it, because it’s not going to happen.”
Respect, he said, should be the American goal abroad — and we already have that.
“Don’t forget that underneath all that sort of anti-Americanism, the people on the street burning the flags and all the rest, there’s a huge residual respect for America, what it stands for, what it believes in,” he said. “It’s always a great test of a country: Are people trying to get into it or get out of it? I just think, don’t worry about whether from time to time, you’re going to get people coming out and saying terrible things about you.”
Then he repeated it on “Fox & Friends” in different words:
“I always say this to people, because in America, you see these pictures of people burning the flag and out on the street and so on. You just got to understand that there is another side to all of that, which is actually people who admire America, respect it and need it to be strong.”
I believe that to be true. I lived in Pakistan for several months in the 1980s because my wife was working in the refugee camps near Peshawar during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In conversations with friends — many of them American-educated — and strangers alike, I was surprised at first how quickly they would shift from blaming the United States for their problems to saying how much they thought of us — and then back again to attacking American ideas and actions.
They did not want to be like us — that is a common American misunderstanding — they wanted what we had, prosperity and freedom. And they wanted us to pay attention to them. I’m sure that none of that has changed.
They understood us better than we understand them. I was impressed when William Pfaff, the American writer in Paris, wrote recently that we are wrong when we compare the Bible and the Quran. The Bible is essentially history, often written several centuries after Christ lived. For Muslims, the Quran is the word of God, transcribed by Muhammad.
Obama was saying something of the same thing at the United Nations. “As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day. And I will defend their right to do so.”
He condemned both the recent private American denigration of Islam — and the killing of our diplomats — but said the nation is committed to free speech.
“The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech,” he said, “the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect. (Americans) have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their view.”
I’m not sure I fully believe that. For all his coolness, Obama, like most of his countrymen, expects to be loved. Blair is right. That is not going to happen. We have done some stupid things in the past decade, starting unnecessary, budget-busting wars in Muslim countries and letting our rich run all over the middle and “lower” classes. Obama’s job — or Mitt Romney’s, if he gets it — is to make America strong, prosperous and fair again.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.