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KUHNER: Lethal olive branch

COMMENTARY:

President Barack Obama has disgraced himself and the United States. His first formal television interview as commander in chief was not with CNN, MSNBC, ABC or Fox News - American media outlets. Instead, it was with Al Arabiya, a Saudi-funded Arabic-language news channel.

Mr. Obama's intent: To provide an olive branch to Muslims in the Middle East. Mr. Obama's goal is to send a clear message that his administration represents a dramatic break from President Bush's policies. "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy," he said.

Moreover, Mr. Obama admitted the United States committed "mistakes" in the past, but he now wants to restore "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago."

He called for a new partnership with the Muslim world "based on mutual respect and mutual interest." Mr. Obama also did something he refused to do as a candidate: play the Muslim card. During the election, the mainstream media and his campaign spokesmen denounced as bigots anyone who raised the issue of Mr. Obama's Islamic ties. It was taboo to even mention it. It is now fair game - provided it comes from the president. In the interview, he talked about growing up in Indonesia, the Muslim world's most populous nation, and noted that he has Muslim relatives. Hence, Mr. Obama seeks to woo the notorious "Arab street" by demonstrating his multicultural credentials: He understands the Islamic faith and possesses the empathy to forge a durable peace.

There is something unseemly - and pathetic - about a U.S. president groveling in front of the Middle East's tyrants and tin-pot dictators, asking for their understanding. The fundamental problem in the region is not American mistakes or Mr. Bush's assertive diplomacy, but its theological backwardness and dysfunctional political culture.

The Arab world's leaders are a motley crew of fanatics, mass murderers and kleptocrats. Decades of misrule, oppression and Islamist propaganda have created the climate for youngsters to embrace jihadism.

There is nothing new in Mr. Obama's approach. It amounts to a return to the realpolitik and appeasement of Arab autocracies championed by U.S. administrations since the 1950s - policies that in the long-run have proved disastrous. If the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks should have taught us anything, it is that diplomatic "engagement" with Middle Eastern thugs guarantees neither stability nor peace.

It is no wonder Mr. Bush's policies were despised by Arab political elites. He was never a conservative - at least, not in the traditional sense. Rather, he was a liberal revolutionary, who sought to transform the Middle East by bringing democracy and political pluralism. He understood that the only way to eliminate the root cause of terrorism is to sweep away the old autocratic structures.

Mr. Bush's pro-democracy, pro-freedom agenda threatened the rotting status quo, the powerful princes and corrupt clerics who have kept the Arab masses in poverty and ignorance for generations. This has allowed hatreds and resentments to fester, eating away at the region's body politic - enabling radical Islam to fill the void.

For the first six years of his presidency, Mr. Bush awakened the impulses of liberty and encouraged the rise of democratic movements once thought impossible.

The long-term consequences of the Bush Doctrine are still not known - and will not be known for some time, especially whether Iraq remains a pro-American democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

But this much we know: The United States does not owe the Muslim world an apology. No country has done more to liberate Muslims than America.

Under Mr. Bush's leadership, the United States toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, overthrew Saddam Hussein's fascist dictatorship in Iraq, helped drive Syria from its occupation of Lebanon, laid a path to an independent Palestinian state (provided it renounces terrorism), forced Libya to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, saved millions of African Muslims from the scourge of AIDS, and prevented Pakistan from falling into the hands of Islamist extremists.

Prior to the Bush administration, Washington bombed the Serbs to protect the Muslim populations of Bosnia and Kosovo. U.S. soldiers were killed - their dead bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu - trying to prevent famine in Somalia. American forces liberated Kuwait from Saddam's brutal occupation. None of this is applauded or acknowledged in the Muslim world. Yet America's accomplishments are no less real.

Mr. Obama's vow to "listen" instead of "dictating" to Muslim leaders shows how little he understands his own country, the Middle East or the seminal reality of our time. At his core, Mr. Obama is a post-modernist leftist who champions an anti-American, transnationalist agenda. Whenever there is an international problem, America is always to blame and "aggressive diplomacy" (a meaningless and incoherent phrase) is always the answer.

Yet, it is not America's flaws that need to be focused on; it is the Muslim world's deep-seated flaws. The region is dysfunctional, and the only thing that can fix it is real reform - the kind ushered in by the Bush administration. "Listening" to venal Saudi princes or inept Palestinian leaders or corrupt Egyptian strongmen will not lead to a new strategic partnership. It will lead to another dead end - one that enables the region's autocrats to stay in power.

Call it diplomacy by self-induced delusion. Mr. Obama may want to deny we are in a war against radical Islam, but it doesn't mean there isn't one. He may choose not to fight it.

We did that once before. The result was 3,000 dead and the worst attack ever on U.S. soil. What price will America pay the next time we refuse to face this ugly reality?

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times.

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