Home inFocus The Obama Effect in the Muslim World

The Obama Effect in the Muslim World

Richard Baehr Spring 2010

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama signaled his intent to engage with the Muslim world and articulated that America’s relationships abroad would be based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” As such, during the first few months of his presidency, Obama endeavored to reach out to the Islamic world. He granted his first formal interview as president to Al-Arabiya, where he explained that his job was to “communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, [and] that the language we use has to be a language of respect.” This was followed by his unprecedented Iranian New Year’s greeting that respectfully addressed not only the people of Iran, but the country’s leaders as well. In early April, Barack Obama spoke to the Turkish parliament in Ankara, where he hoped to “build on our mutual interests, and rise above our differences.” In June, the president finally delivered his long-awaited speech in Cairo, Egypt that had been billed as his opportunity to speak directly to the Muslim world.

The president’s charm offensive was clearly designed to lift America’s standing in the Muslim world, and particularly in the Arab world, where various surveys showed a precipitous drop in favorable opinion towards the United States since the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11. Has it worked?

Misreading the Possibilities for Progress

President Obama did not hide his view that the major reason for the rise in anger towards America in the Muslim world were the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. These included the invasion of Iraq, the treatment of detainees both in Guantanamo Bay and overseas, concerns over the racial profiling of America’s domestic Muslim population as well as Muslim visitors to the United States, and the lack of progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Obama made clear that on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, he believed the Bush administration had not been sufficiently engaged until the final years of his presidency and Barack Obama was determined to make an early effort in this area. His statements on the conflict suggested that he believed it was resolvable on terms both sides could accept over the current state of affairs.

He also highlighted the centrality of the ongoing conflict in preventing the United States from achieving better relations with the Arab and Muslim world. The White House suggested that there was a link between progress on the Palestinian-Israeli front, and America’s ability to bring Iran’s nuclear program to heel. Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, the president suggested, was one of the policy areas where there were “mutual interests” both in the Arab world and in the United States. While looking for Arab allies in this endeavor, the president also appealed directly to Iranians, offering an open hand, a willingness to meet without preconditions, and repeating his view that there were mutual benefits and interests for both nations that would come from engagement.

The President also regularly referred to the Saudi Peace Initiative, first released and endorsed in 2002 and again in 2007 by the Arab League, as the basis for improved relations between Israel and the Arab world. The proposals essentially required Israel to accept the Palestinian negotiating position on all the major issues dividing the parties – in particular, the final borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. While not explicitly endorsing the Saudi or Arab League plan, the president spoke warmly of the initiative, as an effort to help resolve the conflict. In a further demonstration of respect – in what many viewed as undue deference to the Saudis – the American president bowed to Saudi King Abdullah during the G-20 meeting in London.

Biography as Outreach

A key to understanding Obama’s approach to the Arab and Muslim world is that he viewed his election to the presidency as a transformational event. America had not merely elected its first African American president; America elected a worldly man who had spent several years as a child growing up overseas in the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation, Indonesia. During the presidential campaign, Obama frequently reminded his audiences that although he was a Christian, his family also included Muslims. Clearly, the president believed that his life story would not only open diplomatic doors abroad, but perhaps even open minds overseas that might not have been as welcoming if John McCain was the elected president or if George Bush remained in office.

This biography as outreach approach, as well as the new tone in messaging to the Muslim world, suggested that the president believed that his image might matter as much as any of his actions that were designed to redress the perceived grievances in the Arab and Muslim world.

As such, the president hoped that his public appeals, coupled with the significant attention paid to Arab and Muslim interests, would lead to some form of quid pro quo. And the president was seeking assistance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Iranian nuclear program, and the new U.S. effort to disengage most of its military force from Iraq.

The Cairo Effect

The president routinely told his Muslim audiences that America’s military effort to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban was directed against extremists who damaged the reputation of Islam, a great religion that he respected and that had been a significant force for good around the world and in the United States. He presumed that Muslim audiences made the same distinctions. He was far more cautious, however, when talking about Islamists and Muslim fundamentalists, and their widespread political efforts. Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that in his Cairo speech, President Obama implicitly endorsed political Islam, by establishing such a low bar for U.S. recognition of Islamist parties – “peaceful and law abiding.” This standard would no doubt please Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, against whom President Mubarak has worked to exclude domestic political participation. Indeed, some of America’s ‘allies’ in the Arab and Muslim world (i.e. Saudi Arabia), might qualify as law abiding and peaceful, but finish near the bottom of any ranking of nations in terms of human, minority, and women’s rights, or religious tolerance. In his Cairo speech, Obama also made appeals for greater rights for women, for the pursuit of democracy, for greater religious tolerance, and for greater individual religious freedom, both in the Muslim world and in the West. He specifically endorsed the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab – and remained conspicuously silent about the right of Muslim women not to wear it. In essence, the speech provided fig leafs to both the tolerant and intolerant wings of Islam, while at the same time potentially offering offense to each side.

Missteps in the Peace Process

Over a year into the Obama presidency, it is worth exploring the various receptions his initiatives have received in the Muslim and Arab world. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a major issue where the president hoped to enlist the assistance of the Arab world.

The administration wasted no time in making public and repeated demands on Israel to halt all settlement construction beyond the 1949 armistice lines. The call even included a freeze on the natural growth of Israeli settlements. If Israel took this step, the administration argued, the Palestinians would have no reason not to return to the negotiating table. But the Palestinians and Israelis have a long history of direct negotiations without any prior settlement freeze.

America’s demands on Israel hardened Palestinian attitudes reagdring the basis for resuming negotiations. Indeed, how could the Palestinian position be softer on Israel than the American position? Of course the Palestinians would have to hold Israel to the newly raised standards of the Obama administration.

When the United States saw Israeli resistance to their settlement demands, President Obama attempted to assuage their concerns by asking various Arab states for some conciliatory gestures toward Israel, such as overflight rights for Israeli airliners or some form of diplomatic overture – if even at a low level. The Arab states offered nothing.

By siding with the Palestinians’ maximalist demand on Israeli settlements, the administration ensured that it would not receive any cooperation or concessions from either the Palestinians or their Arab neighbors, unless Israel fully complied with U.S. demands. When Israel finally agreed to an unprecedented 10-month freeze on settlement activity outside of the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, it was rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab states as insufficient.

Overtures to Iran

President Obama’s overtures to Iran have proven to be even less productive, if not downright embarrassing for the administration. American attempts to participate in negotiations that would end the Iranian nuclear program have failed. Iran has toyed with its Western interlocutors by ignoring deadlines and changing its demands. It did so while stalling for time to avoid new sanctions, and working to further enrich uranium. The invitations to Iranian ambassadors to attend the July 4 embassy parties and establish a sense of normalcy in the bilateral relationship were both mocked and ignored. Instead, the Iranian regime condemned President Obama and America using the same language they have used for years.

More significantly, the president held his tongue, and failed to lead the Western world in condemnation of the fraudulent Iranian elections in June. He offered no support to the hundreds of thousand of Iranians courageously demonstrating in the streets against the regime. In so doing, the administration may have missed an opportunity to help tilt Iran towards regime change, which may well have offered the best path to an Iranian government willing to suspend its nuclear program. After all, America’s problems with the regime in Tehran predate the known existence of its nuclear program. The problem is not nuclear weapons per se, but nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime that supports a long list of terrorist groups throughout the world, and has used these groups to harass and damage U.S, Israeli and Western interests in the region, and even on distant continents (e.g. South America).

A Return to Dogma

With failure so far on both the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and on negotiations with Iran, it is not surprising that the president spent hardly any time on either subject during his first State of the Union address. In fairness to President Obama, neither subject proved amenable to either settlement or compromise during the previous administration. The difference is that Barack Obama appeared to believe that his charm, his charisma, his new words, and his biography would change things. It must therefore come as a disappointment to the president that nearly all of his initiatives have failed to change the views of Muslims towards America in any actionable way.

As is the case with Obama’s domestic agenda, one can be fairly certain that the White House will turn to its stock excuse once again: The ditch dug by President Bush is too deep and too steep to climb out from.

Richard Baehr is a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Policy Center, and political director of The American Thinker.