What Obama will try to accomplish in Cairo
His speech should aim to launch a new dialogue between two estranged communities of the world, some regional experts say.
As President Obama prepares to deliver his long-awaited speech to the Muslim world Thursday from Cairo University, he is being pulled in multiple directions and called on to address scores of issues in his talk.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet one question hovers over everything: Is rhetoric enough, or will Mr. Obama have to offer substantial policy initiatives to further the speech's stated goal of improving America's poor standing in the Muslim world?
"Rhetoric is not enough, and Barack Obama recognizes it won't be enough," says Fawaz Gerges, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "At this point, most Arabs and Muslims are looking to President Obama to translate his rhetoric into concrete policies," Mr. Gerges says: "settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, a policy that demonstrates America's respect of Islam, and diverting the US from Muslim dictators and rulers who have held back their own people while bleeding their governments dry."
In the days leading up to Obama's speech, much of the focus has been on what the president should and shouldn't say. Speak directly to the Muslim people, some Muslims and experts in the region say. Don't let the authoritarian governments that rule many in the Islamic world – including the Egyptians who will host the president – off the hook, they add.
No, focus on the one issue closest to the hearts of many Muslims, others say: the Palestinian question.
Better yet, if the goal is to break down walls between Islam and the West, flatter your audience with repeated references to the accomplishments of Islamic culture and its contribution to universal progress, still others say. And yet others advise Obama: Don't plead or please, but challenge – challenge Muslims to move their societies forward and challenge governments to trust freedom to allow Muslim people to better their own worlds.
But some regional experts say that the speech should not be viewed so much in terms of prescriptions for American and Muslim actions but rather as the launching of a new dialogue between two estranged communities of the world.
"Yes, the speech has to have substance, but essentially it should be viewed as a framing speech," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "He's looking to frame a different discussion between the Muslim world and the West, rather than announcing a new set of initiatives."
Pre-speech hints from the White House suggest that something along those lines is in fact the president's intent. "We don't expect everything will change after one speech.... It will take a sustained effort, and that is what the president is in for," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.
And in a briefing with traveling members of the press in Riyadh Wednesday, White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes said the speech reflects the president's desire to reduce the divide between two worlds that could both profit from overcoming fears and working together.