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.

Seth Wenig/AP
President Obama addresses the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York Sept. 25. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'The Obama administration’s mixed record underscores the challenges of redefining interests as well as the president’s own diplomatic miscalculations.'

Shades of Cairo were visible in New York this week, as President Obama spoke to the UN General Assembly about America’s relations with the changing Muslim world.

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.

If the president is to bring US policy into closer alignment with a new relationship with the Muslim world, he will have to pay closer attention to four core principles characterizing diplomacy in the Middle East: personal relationships matter, as the late US Amb. Chris Stevens so effectively demonstrated; whatever happens in one part of the region reverberates across the region; consistency is crucial to credibility; and peace in the region depends on finding a lasting solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

These suggest some obvious immediate policy changes.

In Syria, absent consent from the UN Security Council, Obama should construct an international coalition to impose a no-fly zone over the country. This would help cut critical weapons supply-lines from Iran and ground Syria's air power, providing a significant advantage to the Syrian rebellion.

In the nascent democracies of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, security is prerequisite to addressing the pressing concerns of burgeoning and restive youth populations desperate for opportunity. Without strong militaries disciplined under civilian command, these fledgling governments cannot buffer their people against the agitating influences of Islamist and other anti-democracy elements.

And without security, the development central to Obama’s idealism – equal education opportunities for boys and girls, jobs, trade, growth of sciences and technology – is unattainable. Offering military and security training assistance, particularly in Libya and Yemen, is vital to professionalizing those forces under civilian control and insulating these new governments and their societies from destabilizing extremist movements.

Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process must be prioritized again. No issue is more emotive in the Muslim world. The perennial lament heard from both sides – that there is no one to talk to on the other side – cannot be allowed to abide. And it follows that as long as the heart of the region festers unresolved, the region will not progress.

The historical transition under way in the Middle East rightly calls for redefined interests and priorities. Obama’s new idealism requires consistent resolve for it to take root and effect lasting change.

 Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.

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