Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Proposed: Bridge to the Muslim world

"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek His Majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East," President Barack Obama said shortly after arriving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, shortly before heading into a meeting with King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch who could play a role in resolution of the eternal Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Or not.

"I am confident that working together that the United States and Saudi Arabia can make progress on a whole host of issues of mutual interest," Obama said.

The 44th U.S. president arrived in Saudi Arabia — first stop on a tour of the Middle East and Europe — and huddled with the King briefly but with purpose. The Wall Street Journal reported that White House aides said Obama and King Abdullah “focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Afghanistan and its implications for Pakistan, and the threat posed by Iran and energy issues.”

But as important, as symbolically resonant as that meeting may prove to be in the Arab world, it’s just a runup to the big event during this trip. Hours from now, President Obama will make what’s already being described as a “major speech” at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, the heart of the Muslim world.

The stakes couldn’t get any higher. With restive bad actors like Iran testing their throw weight in the region; a hawkish new-old prime minister in Israel looking to reassert his nation’s military bona fides in the same region; and oil and energy prices possibly hanging in the balance, it’s possible that President Obama goes to Cairo freighted with the need to make perhaps the most momentous speech in his young presidency — a speech that may bid to reset nothing less than the dynamic of the relationship between Muslims and the West in a post-9/11 world.

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Or not. For all the potential moment of the Cairo speech, it’s hardly a one-off effort. Some of the pressure is off Obama to dazzle with this speech, partly because he’s already made overtures to Arabs and the Muslim world since Jan. 20, one of them specifically tailored to consumption within the Iranian Republic.

Now, though, the overture will be wider; with a possible audience of 1.5 billion of the world’s Muslims, from the archipelago of Indonesia to the Muslim enclaves of Brooklyn, Obama’s speech can be expected to have a global resonance, one with possibly huge ramifications.

The White House gets the gravity of the situation. From the WH Web site:

“The history of the relationship between America and the Muslim World is deeper and more complex than the common perception might suggest. With his speech in Cairo, the President will lay another marker, addressing America’s relationship with the Muslim World in the heart of the Middle East.”

Both before and after that was posted, the White House sought to play down the potential impact of one speech, and the media’s sermon-on-the-mount anticipation.

"There has been a breach, an undeniable breach between America and the Islamic world, and that breach has been years in the making," said David Axelrod, senior White House adviser. "It is not going to be reversed with one speech. It is not going to be reversed perhaps in one administration, but the president is a strong believer in open, honest dialogue," he told WSJ.

Axelrod’s boss, the president, said as much yesterday in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. “One speech is not going to transform very real policy differences and some very difficult issues surrounding the Middle East and the relationship between Islam and the West,” the president said.

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But looking at it through another lens, it’s clear that an impact has already been made. Throughout the day, NBC has reported on the sense among White House officials that recent efforts by the al-Qaida terrorist network to downplay and discredit the Obama outreach reflect a certain desperation.

A new audiotape from Osama bin Laden (al-Qaida #1) surfaced today, a recording of the usual anti-American invective no doubt timed to coincide with Obama’s arrival. The fact of that bin Laden tape coming the day after an audiotape from Ayman al-Zawhiri (al-Qaida #2) suggests to some in the White House that Obama’s repeated and personalized entreaties to the Muslim world are paying dividends where they count: on the same disaffected streets at-Qaida and other terrorists are recruiting from.

For Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, Obama’s personal appeal is its own dividend. With it, Korb told MSNBC today, “he can demonstrate to them that America is not their enemy, that we’re not at war with the Muslim world, and that we share a lot of the same values.”

That’s the challenge for Obama: to reflect the ways in which cultural and religious differences may be better characterized, not as differences but as distinctions; to show the commonalities between adherents of multiple faiths; and to send a message that reflexive anti-Americanism is not a workable option for anyone.

Hours from now, President Obama takes a necessary action against terrorism, an action that ironically enough doesn’t involve military might or global summitry, or even diplomacy (in the formal sense of the word).

With the power of personality and a direct appeal not just to leaders but also to the people the leaders lead, Obama will send a message of at least a new style of American foreign policy, if not yet substance; one whose accessibility and humanizing aspect go a long way to cutting off the oxygen of rhetoric and emotionalism that terrorism needs to survive.
Image credits: Obama: Still from NBC video. Bin Laden: NBC News via Al-Jazeera.

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