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Obama's cringe-worthy line claiming Middle East conflicts "date back millennia"

Obama SOTU

(Alex Wong/Getty)

If President Obama had any hopes of running for a third term, then he lost the international relations scholar vote on Tuesday night when, in the course of his State of the Union address, he repeated one of the biggest canards about how the Middle East works. Here's the line that launched a thousand "actually"s:

As someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower. In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

As I pointed out on Twitter, before realizing that every PhD in my feed had beat me to it, the idea that Middle East conflicts "date back millennia" is straight-up factually wrong.

The Middle East's conflicts almost all date to within the past century, and many have their roots within Obama's own lifetime. For example, most scholars date the start of today's Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict not to the seventh century but rather to various events from 1979 onward. Islamist extremism is mostly a modern revisionist phenomenon that is a reaction to specific modern-day events such as the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And so on.

But Obama's line was worse than incorrect. It risked perpetuating the widespread "ancient hatreds" myth that feeds two dangerous and mistaken beliefs about the Middle East: 1) that these people just hate each other because that's how they are "over there," and 2) that the problems run so deep that they can't be solved and we shouldn't bother trying. It's reductive and cynical because it paints a picture of the Middle East as perpetually at war because people there are just different.

Those are the kinds of ideas that lead people to fear Syrian refugees, to embrace bigotry against Muslim Americans, and to call, as Ted Cruz did, for "carpet bombing" vast civilian areas as the only solution to Mideast conflicts. In other words, it's exactly the kind of thinking that Obama spent so much of his speech trying to counteract.

So, yes, it was a very bad and regrettable line. That said, I suspect it's not just a coincidence that it seemed to contradict the entire rest of Obama's speech. I've had many conversations with senior White House officials about the Middle East and heard them repeatedly and voluntarily rebut the "ancient hatreds" canard, making clear they see these conflicts as modern developments rooted in specific and modern day forces, not as "dating back millennia."

I don't know enough about the speechwriting process to explain how this line slipped through, given that it does not, based on my understanding, seem to reflect the White House's or the president's understanding of the Middle East. But it's too bad that it did.

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