In Mideast and Europe, Obama debuts 'global populism'

The American president took his case straight to the people on his trip this week, spending limited time with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany, and France.

Eric Feferberg/Reuters
President Obama spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy (second l.) Saturday at the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery before a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

Over three days in the Middle East and Europe, President Obama began an ambitious recasting of politics and global perceptions – taking his case for a new beginning directly to the world's people.

The American president started with a nuanced bid for US-Muslim understanding and Mideast peace at the storied Cairo University – and ended in front of a soaring statue at the American cemetery at Omaha beach in Normandy titled, "The Spirit of American Youth, Rising from the Waves."

The trip, unusual in its limited time with state leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany, and France – was a sweeping bid for the possibility of progress in long-intractable conflicts and standoffs, and a recasting of America's role in that effort. It was an appeal to reason, history, values, remembrance, and common aspirations of humanity, in a populist fashion rarely seen on the world stage, say diplomats and specialists.

"Obama is going over the heads of elites, attempting to establish moral legitimacy as a leader, turning popularity into policy," says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "What we are seeing is not spin, but a sincere effort to reach out to hearts and minds, appealing to better instincts, to the reasonable nature of others. It is a revolutionary approach."

In Egypt, Obama set out to drain the poison in US-Muslim world relations in recent years, and backed a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, as well as an unambiguous freeze on settlement activity. On Saturday, at the Buchenwald concentration camp, with noted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama reaffirmed America's core understanding of the historical event that led to the creation of the state of Israel. On Saturday, speaking to an ever smaller band of veteran brothers on the 65th anniversary of D-Day, he honored the sacrifice and the role of allies in the war against fascism that brought America fully onto the world stage in the mid-20th century.

Reaching hearts and minds in new fashion

Some diplomats say Obama's foreign policy tactics, similar to those used in the 2008 election campaign to create an improbable and popular grass-roots movement, are so new that they defy definition at this point. While the Bush administration began a strong emphasis on public diplomacy, Obama's own biography and experience seem to allow him to connect and build bridges that reach hearts and minds among ordinary people in a new fashion. A recent poll conducted in the US and major European countries by Harris International showed that the president was the most popular Western leader, with 70-80 percent seeing him as positive. Two separate polls of Arab public opinion in late May showed him as enjoying less support, but still viewed more favorably than US policy as a whole.

While discretion and privacy has long been a cardinal rule of diplomacy, some specialists say the degree of antipathy built in the Muslim world for both US policy and the image of America in the past decade has reached such a low point, that a new direct "fireside chat" with the Muslim world might help relations.

In Cairo, the US president set out the scope of the challenge, but also the reason for a different tact, stating: "We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any policy debate."

Later, he offered a promise of candor, saying that "As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth,'" adding that "That is what I will try to do today, to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."

'If you change the psychology, policy will follow'

After the Cairo speech, the White House was criticized by some in Israel for going too far in prescriptions, and among some Muslim and Arab intellectuals for not going far enough in specific details. Obama himself stated repeatedly that "speeches are not enough" during the trip, and stressed the importance of not losing time in moving a Mideast peace effort forward.

Spokesmen for the Lebanese militant group, Hizbullah, and Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood offered skepticism, and Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, flatly opposed Obama and his policies in two audio recordings that coincided with the president's trip. But Essam Derbala, a leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya who was imprisoned by Egypt amid the group's insurrection in the 1990s, said the US president deserved a hearing. He told Reuters: "I call on the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Al Qaeda to look at this solution and put the American side to a real test of the extent of its sincerity in achieving peace with the Muslim world."

"I've never seen anything like this on the Middle East," says a former senior US diplomat who was responsible for Europe and the Mideast. "He's [Obama] started something for Muslims, Israel, Europe, and the US, and it is something that can grow. He's legitimizing a new discussion, saying other ways of thinking are possible, that if you change the psychology the policy will follow.

"Obama also seems to understand the need to prepare, to open this slowly," the diplomat continued. "That's necessary in the Middle East, if you want people to take risks. You need follow-up and if we don't move quickly the energy will be vitiated. But you first have to get there."

'Global populism in a progressive sense'

A day and a continent later, at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany, where 56,000 – many Jews – perished under the Nazis, Obama continued a public acknowledgment of the ties that bind what he called America's "unshakeable" relations with Israel. Speaking of those who died at the camp, including Mr. Weisel's father, he offered that, "They could not have known how the nation of Israel would rise out of the destruction of the Holocaust."

In a further challenge to Holocaust doubters, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president suggested a visit to the camp would provide the "ultimate rebuke" to such views.

On Saturday the 65th anniversary of D-Day at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, with its endless rows of crosses and Jewish stars set just above the Omaha beach landing spot, provided the final backdrop for the White House affirmation of history – and future. With allied leaders including Fresh President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in attendance, along with veterans of the fateful invasion, the president continued his public appeal for a broader vision of humanity: "We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true," Obama said. "In such a world, it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. The Second World War did that."

Mr. Kuchan argues that Obama's popularity allows him to try and create a new dynamic: "Obama is doing this because he can. But also because he believes that in an age of polarization and economic distress, this will work.

"If there is a deal with Iran," Kupchan continues, "it won't be because of back-room negotiations with Ahmadinejad, but because of an appeal to the broader Iranian polity that will build support for a new relationship with the US. His key interlocutors are not his counterparts, but people in Egypt and the Middle East. This is global populism, not in a narrow, but in a progressive sense. The million dollar question is whether it will work."

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