For Obama, reality meets idealism in ties with Muslim world
Just as he did in his groundbreaking speech in Cairo in 2009, President Obama this week articulated the need for 'mutual interest and mutual respect' between Muslims and Americans. His idealism, though, has run into reality. He must adjust if he wins a second term.
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Just as he did in his groundbreaking speech in Egypt early in his presidency, Mr. Obama on Tuesday articulated the need for “mutual interest and mutual respect” between Muslims and Americans. In New York and Cairo he held out a new idealism toward the Middle East – one that aligns US security and economic interests with the welfare of the Arab street rather than the longevity of regimes that have failed and abused their peoples.
But a sea change has occurred in the region since Obama spoke in Cairo in June 2009, and reality has come face to face with idealism. Any American shift in tone or approach is coming against a current of long-defined alliances and deep historic antipathies. The Obama administration’s mixed record underscores the challenges of redefining interests as well as the president’s own diplomatic miscalculations.
As promised, Obama withdrew American forces from Iraq. And he is leading international efforts to penalize Iran with stiff economic sanctions for pursuing a suspected nuclear weapons program. But he has also quietly pushed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the back burner.
Yes, he joined an international coalition to support the rebellion against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. But he has so far been reluctant to intervene more directly in Syria, where the government is estimated to have killed more than 30,000 civilians in its brutal crackdown against the proponents of democracy.
The president called publicly on Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak to step down, breaking ranks with a stalwart US ally. However, he only tepidly objected when the oil-rich powers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops into Bahrain to crush democratic protests there.
Obama’s biggest gamble, perhaps, was to strike a harder open line against Israel in an attempt to strengthen US credibility with Arab leaders. But the end result was that it contributed to the stall in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and the lack of a Palestinian state continues to work against the US on the Arab street.