The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama ridiculed for saying conflicts in the Middle East “date back millennia.” (Some don’t date back a decade.)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 12, 2016 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. <br/> (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

In his seventh and final State of the Union address, President Obama played up the state of the economy, played down the threat of the Islamic State, and introduced a new effort to beat cancer. He also found time for several not-so-subtle swipes at the Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

But for those versed in international relations, there was one line in particular that jumped out from his hour-long speech.

“The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” Obama said.

Thousands of years? Many of the conflicts in the Middle East don’t even date back a decade.

The Twitterati spotted the gaffe, and pounced. Obama was accused of peddling convenient falsehoods while others said he was espousing concepts unworthy of an undergraduate university student. Many said that Obama was not only excusing the conflicts, but in effect was making them seem normal and intractable.

Vox’s Max Fisher said that the comments were potentially dangerous. He wrote: “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.”

As the Ph.D. candidates Benjamin Denison and Jasmin Mujanović have previously pointed out in the Washington Post, “Writing off a conflict as based in “ancient hatreds” makes it easy for international actors to excuse their lack of coherent policy, or worse, to offer simplistic solutions.”

Still, some found a silver lining, saying that the rationale could be used to better understand the partisan divide in Congress.

Nadar, a writer from Syria, tweeted: