When President Obama takes the podium in Cairo this week for his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world, he’ll stand before them as an American leader born of an African Muslim father and raised partly in Indonesia, as well as a politician who cut his political teeth in an Illinois political culture that has a sizable Muslim population.
And he will talk, aides say, about those roots he shares with the Muslim world.
It is a politics of biography rapidly becoming synonymous with the Obama presidency. The message he hopes to deliver to Muslims, outlined by advisors ahead of the president’s departure Wednesday for the Middle East, will draw on the same storytelling instincts Obama has employed with great success at home.
Now, as Obama attempts to forge new relations with a Muslim community that is at best suspicious of American motives, he relies on a diplomacy of personality that rests on the hunch that the best way to make friends for his country is by winning them over himself.
“The fact is that the president himself experienced Islam on three continents before he’s been able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world,” said Denis McDonough, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. The president sees a fundamental need, McDonough said, to change “how we engage our allies.”
So when Obama arrives in the region Wednesday, advisors say, he won’t be carrying detailed policy proposals, but rather an appeal focusing on common experience and mutual respect.
“I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world,” Obama said last week as he prepared for his trip. “That will require, I think, a recognition on both the part of the United States as well as many majority-Muslim countries about each other, a better sense of understanding and the possibilities of achieving common ground.”
Common ground has been elusive in recent years. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, images from the scandals at Abu Ghraib prison and the Bush administration’s inability to stop the slide in Israeli-Palestinian relations all sowed distrust in the region.
But new Gallup polls in 11 Arab countries show that opinions of U.S. leadership, while still generally low, have risen in Egypt and seven other countries since Obama took office.
“In the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, the ratings took a sharp dip after the invasion of Iraq,” said Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. “They never permanently recovered anywhere during the Bush years. Now we’re seeing them recover in 2009.”
Obama administration officials argue that this unpopularity has hindered the United States’ ability to achieve its goals.
“Our image in the world, particularly in the Muslim world, has, over the course of many years, not been what it needs to be in order to accomplish, for instance, peace in the Middle East,” said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary and a top advisor.
The president travels first to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for a private meeting with King Abdullah. Saudi support is seen as key to mustering the broader backing of moderate Arab states for a new diplomatic push to break the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
Obama then heads to Egypt for his address on the campus of Cairo University. The speech is jointly hosted by Al Azhar University, an ancient center of Islamic scholarship. Aides say he will recognize contributions of Middle Eastern scholars to science, mathematics and technology, and cite the millions of Muslims who live and practice their faith freely in the United States.
But although the president intends to deliver a broad message, Obama told reporters last week that it would be “inappropriate” to avoid the subject of Middle East peace. He arrives in Cairo amid a rare, sharp and public dispute between the U.S. and Israel over the issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories.
Some observers see that as a sign that Washington plans not only new policies, but also a more effective sales pitch for them. In recent years, U.S. policies have often come across in the region as “a callous disregard for Muslim suffering in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq and beyond,” said Jon Alterman, director and senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Alterman suggests Obama should reclaim the “language of justice” so important in Islamic thought.
“American have been unwilling to talk about justice in the Middle East because we haven’t wanted to tip the balance away from friends,” he said. “By seemingly skirting the issue of justice, we’ve suggested to Muslim audiences that U.S. policy in the Middle East is both immoral and illegitimate, and that those fighting against it have right on their side.”