It’s always true—just more so now, and especially in the Middle East: Every statement or act by a political figure is directed toward one of several mutually contradictory audiences. For example, the Islamic uprisings purporting to be against a nasty little anti-Mohammed film actually were mainly Salafists challenging, not Western freedom of speech, but the weak new governments that have come to power in their own countries since the Arab Spring.
Their murderous rampages prompted American diplomats in the region to sound apologetic at first about how wrong it is to “hurt the feelings” of Islamists. Likewise, President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader of Egypt, at first struck the same tone, barely criticizing the terrorist actions—until President Obama made it clear that both Morsi’s public statements and those of US diplomats should instead address the American audience.
Neither an act nor the response to it is necessarily an accurate gauge of prevailing public opinion. A tiny minority of Muslims in the world are so anti-Western as to burn down embassies, yet their new democratic governments may be so weak that they must play up to that tiny audience, not the Muslim majority.
But it is not only weak Arab leaders who aim their statements toward particular power blocs. Lately Benyamin Netanyahu has been insulting President Obama, not to offend Obama himself, but probably to get Jewish Americans to vote for Romney, whose policy toward Iran sounds more aggressive. Netanyahu himself has not elicited enough political support in Israel to promise to bomb Iran, but he berates Obama for not committing to do so. Who is his audience and why?
Still, local public opinion sometimes is the real audience to which leaders must appeal. The leaders of neither the US nor Iran can afford any more to back down about Iran’s nuclear policy. To do so would make them look too weak. Today Iran would probably accept a compromise deal if it looked good enough to save face politically. Obama can’t offer that because he has to address the Republicans in Congress right now. But if the Democrats retake Congress?