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US-MIDEAST: Obama Overture Fraught With Stumbling Blocks

Ali Gharib and Jared Levy

WASHINGTON, Jun 3 2009 (IPS) - In his most widely anticipated speech to date, U.S. President Barack Obama will reach out directly to the Muslim world Thursday morning at Cairo University.

The address will set out an approach – likely broad, but at times with specific concrete goals – designed to ease the concerns of many of the globe’s 1.4 billion Muslims, many of whom view the U.S. and its foreign policy negatively. But his attempt is fraught with stumbling blocks.

On Monday, Obama told the French television channel ‘Canal Plus’ that he intends to “create a better dialogue” by “provid[ing] a framework, a speech of how I think we can remake relations between the United States and countries in the Muslim world.”

In the interview he also spoke of a knowledge deficit about Islam in the U.S. and the West, and said that “we have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam.”

Obama intends to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor, the wildly unpopular George W. Bush, and present a new image to the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Speaking to the BBC on Monday, however, Obama flatly denied that his speech would be an apology for U.S. policies of the past, including the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the latter which Obama is significantly escalating – and U.S. detention and interrogation policies in those countries as well as the military’s Guantanamo Bay facility.

Obama, born to a Muslim father, is expected to lay out U.S positions that would put a more friendly face on the U.S.-led “war on terror,” which was perceived by many Muslims as an assault on their faith.

He also is expected to reiterate recent calls for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and discuss some concrete measures for accomplishing it.

But already, the choice to deliver the speech in Egypt, the largest Arab country and an undemocratic U.S. ally, has brought some controversy.

Confronted by the BBC, Obama refused to call Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak an “authoritarian”, saying he rejects such labels, but acknowledged “criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt”.

Egyptians, for their part, are sceptical of the U.S. change of course under Obama, but his ratings are considerably better than Bush, according to a survey of Egyptians by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a website of the University of Maryland’s Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

Thirty-nine percent of Egyptians have faith that Obama will make sound decisions about U.S. foreign policy, and 46 percent view the U.S. favourably, compared with 27 percent under Bush.

But Obama faces even more daunting polling numbers on other questions. Sixty-seven percent of Egyptians think the U.S. has a negative impact on the globe and three-quarters think the U.S. is trying to weaken and divide the Muslim world. Four of five Egyptians think the U.S. is out to dominate Middle Eastern oil, and the same number think the U.S. is trying to impose its culture on Muslim countries.

PIPA notes that these views are largely unchanged from polling in 2008 and that Obama is seen as harbouring the same goals as the U.S. in general.

With Egypt’s oppressive politics and human rights violations and its standing as a close U.S. ally, many Egyptians see the U.S. as unsupportive of democracy. Four in 10 respondents thought that the U.S. does not support democracy in the Muslim world.

“We are… alarmed by signals that the Obama’s administration’s support for democracy may have waned,” wrote Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour in the New York Times on Wednesday, noting that democracy funding for Egypt had gone down.

“We don’t expect Mr. Obama to bring progress to Egypt,” he wrote. “But we expect him to demand freedom for all and to restate his conviction that oppressive regimes march on the wrong side of history.”

Some fear that no matter what Obama says, his association with dictators like Mubarak will hinder his outreach.

A former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counter-terrorism official, Michal Scheuer, said on Al Jazeera English television that standing hand-in-hand with Mubarak was a better recruitment tool for global Muslim terrorism than pictures of abuse of Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Many pundits are urging the president to speak out forcefully in favor of democracy – the sort of rhetoric for which Bush’s so-called ‘freedom agenda’ was known.

“Although there are many expectations for this speech, one that Mr. Obama hopefully will disappoint is the expectation that he will walk away from what President George W. Bush called ‘the freedom agenda,'” wrote neoconservative American Enterprise Institute scholar and former Bush-era defence official Paul Wolfowitz in the Wall Street Journal. “That would be a great mistake for the U.S. and for the Muslim world.”

“The freedom agenda” was the name Bush gave to his democracy promotion programmes, which were widely discredited by the war in Iraq, U.S. detention policies, Bush’s continued support of authoritarian allies, and his repudiation of elections won by opponents of U.S. policy, such as the militant group Hamas’s victory in Palestinian Authority elections.

Egypt has its own Hamas-connected Islamist dissidents – most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood – whom Mubarak has cracked down on since the “Arab Spring” of 2005 when reform movements were gaining strength around the Arab world.

“The president should make clear that the U.S. does not believe that democracy can be imposed by force,” wrote Wolfowitz, who had a strong hand in the drive to the war on Iraq, itself intended to bring freedom and democracy to the “heart of the Middle East.”

Journalist and policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars Robin Wright also said that the people of the Muslim world – as opposed to their ruling regimes – do want to hear about democracy promotion.

“They want Obama to address issues of good government,” she said at a recent Wilson Centre panel on Obama’s trip. “They want him to deal with democratisation, but not ram it down their throat.”

Neoconservative Council on Foreign Relations scholar and former Bush democracy promotion adviser on the National Security Council Elliott Abrams was even more explicit that Obama should put the onus on the Muslim world to reform, writing in the Wall Street Journal about “the need for Muslim societies to open up so that every citizen can contribute his and especially her talents.”

“Political, social and gender limitations are preventing these societies and the people in them from realizing their God-given abilities,” wrote Abrams. “He should declare our complete belief in political freedom, democracy and equality of all citizens and of men and women.”

But not everyone believes that calling for sweeping changes in the Muslim world makes for the best outreach.

“I would argue that what he needs to do is address an issue which resonates with the Arab and Muslim world,” wrote Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. adviser on Mideast peace and a scholar at the Wilson Centre. “I would argue that issue is the Palestinian issue. He doesn’t have to lay down a peace plan, but he has to be a breaker of icons.”

Indeed, Obama is widely expected to use at least part of his speech to show support for the two-state solution, reiterating recent calls for concrete steps towards peace. Obama is currently engaged in a clash with the Israeli government over ending all settlement construction.

But at the Wilson Centre forum, Miller went farther, saying that Obama needed to do more than just talk.

“It is only a speech,” he said. “Words matter in this part of the world. Deeds matter more. There is an expectation (in the Muslim world) that he’s actually going to be able to deliver something.”

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