How far will Obama's words of respect carry US-Muslim relations?

A new tone can defuse 'residual anger' among Muslims over the Iraq war, but it's likely to hit its limits in dealing with Iran.

President Obama's speech from Cairo University Thursday set a new tone of respect and common purpose in US-Muslim relations. Now comes the testing time for how far a change of tone can actually carry the US toward improved standing in the Muslim world or toward new avenues to addressing old problems.

For years after the 9/11 attacks, much of the world scolded America over the tone of the Bush administration, saying it had soured relations between Islam and America and had thwarted progress on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Middle East democratization. Mr. Obama, in using a different vocabulary and by reaching out directly to the Muslim populace, is testing that assertion.

"We heard a great deal from sectors as varied as the leaders in Muslim countries to the man in the street that the tone of the Bush administration was a real barrier in improving America's image and in addressing some of the issues of critical importance to the United States," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "President Obama is very much intent on setting a different tone and, by an articulation of that and expressing a commonality of interests, seeing how far that gets us."

The promise of improvement

A different American vision and approach can't help but have some impact, some experts in the region say.

"This speech carried some clear departures from the recent past, and to the extent those words sink in, it can make a difference," says Clovis Maksoud, director of American University's Center for the Global South in Washington.

He points to two stand-out changes in tone: on violence and Islam, and on imposed versus nurtured democratic change. "The perception of the Muslim world that prevailed, especially after 9/11, was of a widely accepted linkage [in America] between terrorism and violence and Islam," Mr. Maksoud says. "Obama deconstructed the template [that] the neoconservatives wanted to prevail."

Beyond that, he says, Obama's characterization of diplomacy will echo positively throughout the Muslim world.

"He's replaced the diplomacy of dictation with the diplomacy of attempted persuasion, and that entails respect for the Muslim people," says Maksoud. "That can go a long way in defusing the residual anger that has existed," especially after the war in Iraq.

The risks of raising expectations

Obama's desire to chart a new course from the Bush administration – or what Obama Thursday called a "new beginning" – did not start in Cairo. In his four months as president, he has delivered three major speeches in foreign capitals – Prague, Ankara, and now Cairo – that aimed to remove old barriers and open the way to resolution of protracted problems, Mr. Clawson says. Think arms control and the East-West divide, democracy in Islam and the redressing of old ethnic wounds, and modernization of the Muslim world.

But taking on these big topics does not mean American policy has changed. Some regional analysts who laud Obama's speech for its new tone also warn that it could raise expectations that, if not met, could lead to deepened frustration and cynicism. In that case, it won't much matter that the new American president – who pointed out to millions of Arabs and Muslims that he carries Muslim heritage as indelibly expressed in his middle name, Hussein – spoke to the people of his vision.

"The pressure will mount for moving beyond words on the core issues, and emerging American credibility will be tested early," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In his Cairo speech, Obama continued his "tone of frankness and mutual respect" that he has established in his broader diplomatic outreach, Mr. Telhami says. But the president "went beyond tone by articulating positions on specific issues of mutual concern," he adds. Among those are the American military presence in Iraq and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by creating Palestine, a state to live peacefully alongside Israel.

Limits of a change in tone

it is here, where rhetoric yields to policy, that Obama's "new tone" may hit its limits, say some analysts of regional affairs. That will be especially true if what emerges are American policies that haven't changed and that reflect enduring American interests that may not match the interests of Muslims or Arabs or other populations.

"Obama did not announce much in the way of changes in US policy," says Mr. Clawson. "I'm tempted to call it 'continuity we can believe in.' "

Obama did say that Israeli settlements in Palestinian lands "must stop," Clawson notes. But that, he adds, "has basically been the US position going back to [President Lyndon] Johnson." And he says that instead of a "Clinton-style apology for past policy mistakes, [Obama] offered a full and silver-throated defense of America and American values."

Much attention has been showered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Obama's approach to it. One problem Maksoud identified in the president's speech is Obama's call for Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist, which he says is different from "recognizing Israel's existence" because the former leaves unaddressed the issue of Arab and other minority rights in a Jewish state.

"I expect that call by Obama will not resonate well," he says.

Hardest test: Iran?

Others say the first test of the limits of changed tone is likely to come vis-a-vis Iran. Prospects there for new-tone diplomacy may not be good, Clawson says.

"Let's not forget that under a different American president, Iranian leaders said that pronouncements like 'axis of evil' were a big part of the problem between the two countries," he says. "But now that we actually have a president using a different vocabulary, we hear the Iranians saying, 'Sweet words are not enough,' so I'm skeptical of the argument that tone is a determining factor."

On the other hand, Clawson notes that President Bush delivered a speech in the United Arab Emirates in January 2008 that was touted at the time as a significant statement on US-Arab relations – but that met a cool response and was quickly forgotten.

Like Obama, Mr. Bush spoke about Iran, the common threat of extremism, the rights of Palestinians, and the universal yearning for democracy. But while the themes of the speech were similar, the tone was indeed different.

Bush spoke of "confronting this danger [posed by Iran] before it's too late." He said that Islamic extremists "hate your government because it does not share their dark vision [and] hate the US because they know we stand with you in opposition to their brutal ambitions."

On Thursday, Obama delivered many of the same messages, but couched them in different words. He will find out soon enough how far that change takes him.

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