Obama's Challenge In Egypt

President Barack Obama speaks about the economy, Wednesday, May 27, 2009, at Thunderbirds Hangar at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) AP

The "On The Marc" column is written by The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, CBS News' chief political consultant.


For the past several months, American diplomats have been working with their partners in the Arab world on a top-secret project: when Barack Obama delivers his address to the world's Muslims later this week, the White House wants to ensure that it is seen or heard by hundreds of millions of the faithful across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Already, the White House has secured promises from major Arab television and radio networks to carry the address live. In addition, journalists from Arab world newspapers will be well cared for by the administration.

The level of consultation with Arab countries about the timing, location (a modern college - in Egypt) and content of an American president's speech has been unprecedented.

That's because a successful speech will be as useful for the interests of many parts of the Arab world as it will be for the national security of the United States.

The notion of an American president's speech that facilities the mutual interests of our allies in the Muslim world will strike conservatives here at home as a venal sin. The fear is that that Obama will capitulate to an anti-Western world view that privileges humility over strength and concede that America has lost the clash of civilizations.

Mr. Obama remains an enigma to the Muslim world. White House officials believe that a large percentage of them believe that he shares their faith. They hear "Barack Hussein Obama" and can't help but associating the name with Islam. (His father was a Muslim - that's all many need to know.)

In America, we know our president is a modernist evangelical, but it has not escaped notice overseas that this falsehood is useful as a way of promoting American interests and ideals. He is manifestly more popular among Arabs than President Bush was. That's not a surprise, but then again, not altogether expected.

Perhaps it's a function of the same powers of projection: Muslims see in Mr. Obama a kindred spirit who was chosen as the leader of the most powerful country in the world -- someone who did not advocate the imperialism of the Iraq war, someone who can set an example for Muslim governments (almost universally unpopular with their citizens) of enlightened leadership. He is a talisman for Muslim modernity.

Mr. Obama's popularity serves another useful purpose. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as are concerned about the possibility of a nuclear Shiite Iran as they are with the resonances of the Palestinian conflict.

But most Egyptians and Saudi Arabians support Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The prevailing theory is that support for Iran is balanced on a see-saw with favorable attitudes about America. The more popular America becomes - or the more credible it becomes as a broker of peace - the less likely the Arab world is to look for Persia as a source of strength.

The conflict between what an Iposos-Zogby poll of the Arab world called "Brand Obama" and "Brand America" is striking. Mr. Obama is legitimately popular in the Arab world. His principle task, as the White House sees it, is to convince ordinary Muslims that Mr. Obama's policy is the new American policy.

It is no accident that the administration's tough anti-settlement rhetoric was the talk of the Arab world. I would not be surprised if there was a concerted, semi-covert effort to make sure that Arab newspapers and opinion sources noticed how angry the Netanyahu government became after the prime minister met with Obama in Washington.

(There is no better headline, from the U.S. point of view, than something like: "Israel Rejects American Pressure On Settlements.")

With chief foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes and a few other aides, Mr. Obama is scrutinizing every word of his address with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar. He will no doubt not be satisfied with the final product until moments before he steps up to the bulletproof lectern on Thursday.

The White House has been irritatingly silent on details, but Mr. Obama himself has offered a bit of a preview. He will seek to locate American interests in a universal narrative of progress. He will express his sympathy for the plight of Palestinians. He will certainly use the speech as a teachable moment to remind Muslims of their obligations to other countries, including Israel. He will stress his respect for the sovereignty of Muslim nations while maintaining that the values of free expression and human rights are transhuman.

He will also fib a little bit. Americans are wary of the Muslim world and Mr. Obama will have to explain why this is not so.

Even as allied governments encouraged Mr. Obama to give this speech, they're pressuring him to go further than what he intends. The White House worries a little that Muslims expect Mr. Obama to outline a comprehensive plan for Middle East peace. He won't do that - and Muslim governments know he won't.

If he is too vague, he will no doubt be criticized, but I think Mr. Obama intends to strike a balance. He knows that even he cannot buy the world's goodwill with words. On the other hand, if America is perceived as wanting real progress towards peace in the Middle East, then hardened anti-American sentiments will evaporate and countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will more effectively be able to deal with a hegemonic Iran.

The audience back in America is going to be listening carefully, too. In general, Mr. Obama gets plaudits from independents and Democrats when he is perceived as reaching out. Conservatives often confuse this feeling with self-hating anti-Americanism. But it's more that the broad mass of Americans who support Mr. Obama believe that it serves our interests when anti-American sentiments - legitimate or contrived - are taken off the table.

Americans will also be listening for Mr. Obama's denunciations of jihadis and terrorism. Does it sound perfunctory? Does he use the occasion to speak truth to power? Will he address human rights issues by country? Will he use his political capital overseas to be as honest about the Muslim world as he is about America's intentions and history?
By Marc Ambinder
  • Marc Ambinder

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