In the Middle East the American presidency has gone from being pelted with shoes to receiving a standing ovation. President Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo on June 4, attempting to reverse the plummeting popularity of the United States in the vast zone stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. His serene, common-sense address pleased mainstream Muslims but elicited howls of outrage from Al Qaeda and the Israeli right wing and skeptical dismissals from Iranian and Hezbollah leaders. Will Obama be able to achieve at least some foreign policy success in the Middle East, the Bermuda Triangle of White House diplomacy?
Obama’s address was warmly received by the audience at Cairo University, which spanned the political spectrum from ordinary students to secular dissidents and fundamentalist Muslim Brothers. The president acknowledged that many of the Muslim world’s grievances toward the West derived from the long period of colonialism, followed by cold war interventions. He thus avoided the common Western implication that Muslims are somehow essentially more fanatical or irritated than other human beings. He declined to let this explanation serve as a pass for violent extremism, however: whatever its roots, he insisted, it is unacceptable, “does not succeed” and must be fought.
His big applause lines came when he cited the Koran on truth-telling and social tolerance and when he spoke of human and women’s rights. But he was not booed even when he defended Israel or pledged to pursue the Afghanistan war. The two concrete policy planks he put forward–a US military withdrawal from Iraq in accordance with the timetable adopted by the elected Iraqi Parliament and pursuit of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine–were popular with his audience, though their enthusiasm was tempered with a healthy skepticism born of repeated disappointment. (Arabs probably have a better appreciation than do most Americans for the difficulty of getting anything serious done on the peace process, given the frightful conjuncture of a Likud government in Israel with a divided Palestinian Authority.)
Obama clearly won most Egyptians over. According to an instant poll conducted in Egypt by a government think tank, 37 percent believed everything the president said, while 41 percent believed some of it. Only 5 percent rejected the address as a litany of falsehoods.
The hardest group for Obama to win over are the region’s fundamentalists. Devotees of political Islam–who form about 15 percent of the Muslim population, according to polls–were the most skeptical. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood issued a communiqué rejecting the speech as a mere emotional appeal to Muslims that offered no real policy changes. The Brotherhood complained about Obama’s support for Israel, his emphasis on what they monstrously called the “fable of the Holocaust” and his ignoring, they said, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. But only one in twenty Egyptians agreed with them. On the other side of the Red Sea, Israeli West Bank settlers complained that Obama had suggested a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians, calling that a form of Holocaust denial. In Iraq, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr dismissed Obama’s pledge to depart Iraq as a baldfaced lie.
Even some fundamentalists, however, entered into the spirit of the speech, which was about bridging cultural differences by finding common ground. The Egyptian Islamic Group, a onetime terrorist group that is reinventing itself as a peaceful civil society organization, called on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to make a positive gesture to Obama in response to the speech. Even the radical Palestinian party Hamas admitted that it could “build on” Obama’s speech.
It is startling to consider that last year at this time presidential contender John McCain was proclaiming “radical Islamic extremism” to be this country’s transcendent challenge and a greater menace to the United States than had been the Soviet Union. (This was before the danger posed by crooked financiers threw other threats into the shade.) Some critics argued that Obama’s specific policies differ little from those of Bush. But eschewing aggressive wars of choice, forbidding torture and closing Guantánamo are repudiations of Bush policies; and the new president’s pledge not to impose democracy at the point of a gun also distinguishes him from his predecessor. Moreover, Obama, unlike Bush, is determined to do more than pay lip service to the ideals of withdrawing from Iraq and establishing a Palestinian state.
Still, the main difference in Obama’s approach was his willingness to show respect to his audience. He insisted that the United States will be a partner, not a patron, for Iraq. That Obama’s policies differ little from Bush’s official stances makes it all the more clear that the Republicans’ clamor against his speech arose from a petty refusal to treat Muslims even-handedly and with basic decency–something Republicans identify as “surrender” and an “apology.”
Despite the carping from fundamentalists abroad and conservatives at home, there is little doubt that Obama succeeded in his primary goal of hitting the reset button for the relationship of the United States with the nearly fifty Muslim-majority states in the world. He thereby put the ill-conceived Bush/Cheney “war on terror” (or on an undefined “Islamofascism”) behind us all.
Critics who complain that charisma outweighed substance in the address are strangely underestimating the ability of powerful oratory to galvanize an audience. Of course, the president has raised expectations and so must deliver on his pledges if he is to avoid frittering away the era of good feeling and neighborliness his speech inaugurated in the Muslim world. If US combat troops are actively patrolling Iraq in 2013 or the condition of Palestinians spirals down from here, he risks creating an angry backlash. If Obama really can get the United States out of Iraq, make tangible progress toward a Palestinian state and create a stable government in Kabul, those achievements would make him the most successful US president in the Middle East in history. Even achieving just one of these goals while avoiding subsequent violence would be a mark of greatness. What is clear is that a very substantial number of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are rooting for him rather than against him.