Obama seeks new start with Muslim world

May 31, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, May 31 – President Barack Obama will journey to the center of Arab-Muslim civilization this week, to begin the daunting task of draining deep mistrust of the United States felt across the Islamic world.

In Egypt on Thursday, Obama will make a personal address to the world’s Muslims, harnessing his own ancestral ties to Islam and globalizing his message of change in an speech rich in trademark political ambition.

Obama’s trip next week to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and World War II commemorations in France and Germany, comes as some observers scent a moment of opportunity amid the perpetual Middle East crisis.

But others see only peril, with a showdown gathering pace between Washington and Israel over Jewish settlements and no end in sight to Iran’s nuclear drive.

Obama targeted reconcilation with Islam and rigorous Middle East diplomacy from his first moments in office.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said in his inaugural address in January.

He quickly called Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and spoke to the Al-Arabiya satellite network.

Obama made an unprecedented video address to Iranians and reassured Muslims the United States was not at war with them from the Turkish parliament.

This trip’s first stop, on Wednesday, will be Saudi Arabia, for talks with King Abdullah, seeking Arab support for US peace efforts.

But the highlight will be the speech at the University of Cairo, co-hosted by Al-Azhar University, an ancient hub of Islamic scholarship.

Obama may try to use the charismatic rhetoric which helped make him president as a balm for region-wide mistrust of the United States.

"I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world," Obama said last week.

The speech will also be a promise kept — way back in the presidential campaign Obama pledged to speak before a major Islamic forum.

In major speeches, Obama embroiders his exotic personal biography into a a political narrative — as in his frank 2008 speech about race.

In Egypt Obama will reference the Islamic faith of some of his paternal family in Kenya, time spent in Indonesia as a young boy and contacts with Muslim communities in Illinois.

"The President himself experienced Islam on three continents before he was able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world," said foreign policy advisor Denis McDonough.

Some analysts predict though Obama may fall short.

"Expectations in the region have gotten pretty high and I think there is a very good chance that those expectations will be disappointed," said Flynt Leverett, a former US official who quit the Bush administration over differences on Middle East policy.

"I think people are looking for this to be the place where is he going to get in the lead on the Palestinian issue.

"I will be rather surprised if that is what he does."

The US image in the Muslim world has been stained by the invasion of Iraq, stalled Palestinian hopes for statehood and Bush administration aquiesence in Israel’s offensives in Lebanon and Gaza.

In 2004, a survey by WorldPublicOpinion.org, based at the University of Maryland, found just four percent of Egyptians had a favourable opinion of the United States.

A McClatchy/Ipsos poll this month found that only 33 percent of those surveyed in six Arab countries had a favorable opinion of the United States

But Obama’s favorable ratings beat those of the United States by 26 points in Kuwait, 22 points in Jordan, 18 points in the United Arab Emirates, 15 points in Saudi Arabia, 13 points in Egypt and 11 points in Lebanon.

That suggests he might be the ideal messenger.

Since bursting onto the political scene in 2004, Obama has repeatedly leveraged his ability to move people with words.

But that might be a tough sell in the Middle East.

"There’s nothing Barack Obama could say to Muslims on June 4th that will make the United States popular, and he shouldn’t try," said Jon Alterman, of the Center of Strategic and International Studies.

"The underlying interests are simply not allied with the policies that many Muslims around the world would like to see the United States pursue."

"We’re going to have to agree to disagree, and that’s the first task for the president — to frame US policy in a way that takes some of the passion out of widespread hostility to the United States


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