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Obama starts well with Muslims but must do more

He has to follow up with real engagement.

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That is not helped by the perception that US policy toward Israel continues to be dictated by domestic US politics. Mrs. Clinton is the poster child for that.

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Earlier this month, newspapers here in Cairo carried front-page photographs of Clinton being kissed by Israeli President Shimon Peres during her visit to Jerusalem. Arabs saw in that a clear message. Ditto what she said – and did not say – about Gaza, Israeli settlements, Hamas, and human rights in Egypt. Many Arabs fear it's Condoleezza Rice redux. The Israel lobby's success in torpedoing Obama's nominee for head of the National Intelligence Council – widely reported here – underlines the perception of business as usual.

Word on the Middle East diplomatic circuit is that the Clintonites at State are even backing off all that talk of Arab political change. Bush, it seems, gave democracy a bad name. Good news for Arab autocrats, bad news for pro-democracy activists who are already muttering about more American hypocrisy.

Arabs are still willing to be convinced about Obama's motives. The flurry of diplomatic activity and indications that the administration is willing to talk directly with Tehran and even with the Taliban are being praised on the region's editorial pages. Arabs welcome the fact that the myopia of the past eight years has been jettisoned in favor of a nuanced approach that recognizes the interconnectedness of the many complex policy challenges of the Middle East.

But to be effective, the Obama administration must talk to all the players, not just those approved by Israeli or Arab regimes. If we're willing to flirt with the Taliban, why wouldn't we sit down with Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood? There is no peace without Hamas and Egypt may have no future without the Brotherhood.

Obama has the symbolism of outreach to the world's Muslims down pat, but gestures are cheap in a region where lives are readily sacrificed in symbolic acts of martyrdom. Now he must follow up with real, concrete engagement.

That should involve a serious partnership with democratically elected Muslim governments in places like Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia. These are countries that will not march in lock step with American policy, but that is precisely what makes them so valuable as allies.

Lawrence Pintak is director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at The American University in Cairo. His latest book is "Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas."