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.