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Obama's Message to Muslims Resonates, But Challenges Await

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Acting Editor, CFR.org
June 4, 2009

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CFR Mideast expert Steven A. Cook says President Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech in Cairo on June 4 likely resonated with Muslims more deeply than similar attempts at engagement by President Bush. Cook says Obama is not tainted by the invasion of Iraq - his speech reiterated a vow to withdraw troops by 2012 - which helped give his reference to moderation and democracy in the Middle East greater credibility. "It's abundantly clear from the speech today that the president still does support democratic change in the region, but the U.S. is not going to impose its values, and certainly not going to impose its values and system of governance through the end of a tank," he said. But Cook stressed the difficulties facing Obama's plan to begin and sustain a more constructive dialogue with Muslims. "This is a very tough row to hoe for the U.S.," he says. "For many in the Arab and Muslim world, the burden is on the U.S. The president wanted to make clear that the U.S. is prepared to do the heavy lifting, but it needs a partner."

This was President Obama's third major address to the Muslim world since he became president. What was the most significant signal in terms of rhetoric or policy?

He hit all of the hot button issues, and did delve a bit into policy issues. But I think the most important thing people should take away from this speech was that the president really tried to hold the mirror up to all of the communities with whom he was speaking. He tried to hold the mirror up to the Arab leaders. He tried to hold up the mirror to Muslim communities at large. He also held the mirror up to Israelis, who are also paying a lot of attention to what he had to say in this speech. I thought that was incredibly important. He talked plainly about violence, incitement, Holocaust denial, settlements, and the lack of democracy in many Muslim [countries] and particularly Arab countries. It was important in keeping with the theme that the president has consistently emphasized from the days of his candidacy: personal and collective responsibility.

He addressed the broader issue of tension between the U.S. and the Muslim world. He identified seven or so issues. Did he miss any issues? Were there any there that you were surprised by?

No, I think he hit on all of them. It was a bit of a surprise that he did delve somewhat into the issue of economic development. This is not an issue that necessarily divides the U.S. and Egypt, and it didn't really break any ground. Those kinds of things need to be said, but they are longstanding policies of the United States. But in general, he covered the ground fairly well and there wasn't much he left out.

A listener in the Muslim world might say "the proof is in the pudding. Show me that you're sincere." He spent a lot of time talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Were there aspects of that discussion in his speech that signal a new energy on the Obama administration's part?

I'm going to echo [CFR's] President Richard Haass, who was on television almost immediately after the speech ended. I think he was quite right in saying this wasn't a policy speech. This was a speech about opening up a dialogue. I think on the question of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fact that in the run-up to the speech, and during the speech, he called out the Israelis on the settlement issue and legitimate rights for the Palestinian people was extraordinarily important for a Muslim audience. But equally important was the fact that he called out Muslims and Arabs for their vilification of Jews, for their denial of the Holocaust, for their denial of the historical suffering of Jews, and for the legitimate right for Israel to exist in the Middle East--essentially saying to the two communities that if you truly want peace and security, you're going to have to make these dramatic steps.

In some ways I noticed echoes of things President Bush had said to the Arab world and the Muslim world in general, especially appealing towards moderates, in addressing the proud history of Islam and quoting the Quran.

There are a couple things. First is that the president has a unique and interesting back story: the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother who spent time growing up in Indonesia. He's the first African-American elected president in the U.S. These things resonant deeply with Arab and Muslim publics because they implicitly understand the U.S. in terms of the principles and ideals by which Americans like to believe that we live: a land of equality, opportunity, tolerance, and rule of law. That is an advantage that President Obama has that his predecessor didn't have. The other factor that gives the kinds of things President Obama said today in Cairo deep resonance is the fact that he is not tainted by the invasion of Iraq, which has had profound impact on the way Arabs and Muslims view the United States. So when he does talk about moderation and democracy in the Middle East, it's done in a way that is backed by credibility that President Bush lacked. It's important for listeners to recognize that there's been a lot of talk about the Obama administration dropping the issue of democracy and becoming comfortable with dictators and so on. Secretary Clinton's remarks in Beijing and President Obama's willingness to meet with President Mubarak and King Abdullah suggested all of this, but I think it's erroneous. It's abundantly clear from the speech today that the president still does support democratic change in the region, but the U.S. is not going to impose its values, and certainly not going to impose its values and system of governance through the end of a tank.

You mentioned the hope for the beginning of a new dialogue. Obama said this must be a "sustained effort to listen to each other and trust each other." When you get into practicalities, it's either a flurry of transformational diplomacy in the Muslim world or stepped-up public diplomacy. How do you see that coming into practice?

It's an integrated strategy. I think there are many different factors that go into it -- transformational diplomacy, public diplomacy, moving forward on the peace process, implementing some of the specifics that the president laid out on the education of women and economic development. All of those things are going to go into this dialogue. Now the question is how the Muslim and Arab world reciprocates. This is a very tough row to hoe for the U.S. For many in the Arab and Muslim world, the burden is on the U.S. The president wanted to make clear that the U.S. is prepared to do the heavy lifting, but it needs a partner. The Muslim world is very diverse. I can well imagine that from many quarters people will respond to that call. In other quarters, they won't and say that the U.S. has a responsibility to do these kinds of things by itself.

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