President Barack Obama will try to repair America's tarnished image
in the Muslim world on Thursday, as he looks to mobilize support for
restarting Middle East peacemaking and thwarting Iran's nuclear
In a highly anticipated speech in Cairo, Obama will reach out to the
world's more than 1 billion Muslims, seeking to chart a new path in
U.S.-Muslim relations that were badly damaged by the Bush
administration's global war on terror.
"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 after meeting Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington.
But analysts say Obama will be trying to win over Muslims in the
Middle East, where he faces some of his biggest foreign policy
challenges, from the Iraq war and the nuclear standoff with Iran to
the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the treatment of
prisoners at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib
prison in Iraq, and the Bush administration's perceived bias in
favor of Israel stoked anti-American sentiment in the region and
"The best he could hope to accomplish is move Arab public opinion
about the United States and make it easier for their governments to
work with (Washington). We need it for our general influence in the
area," said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations who served in senior foreign policy positions
under two Republican presidents.
The speech comes at a time when Obama is seeking to build an
alliance of moderate Muslim nations to pressure Iran to stop uranium
enrichment, which Washington fears is a cover to build atomic
weapons but Tehran says is for peaceful purposes. He also needs
their support for renewed U.S.-led efforts to seek a two-state
solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
His administration has embraced a proposal by Saudi Arabia that
offers Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full
withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war,
creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" to the
Palestinian refugee problem.
It will likely feature in Obama's talks with Saudi King Abdullah in
Riyadh on Wednesday on his way to Egypt,
"How the United States addresses the conflict is how citizens of the
region are likely to regard the United States," said Steve Grand, an
expert on U.S.-Islamic relations at the Brookings Institution. "That
more than anything binds Muslims into what many call the Muslim
Obama spent last week working with aides to craft the speech, which
he has said will address the Palestinian-Israeli question, but
possibly not in the detail that many Muslims would like. The White
House has already dismissed speculation he will unveil a new Middle
East peace initiative.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
But Muslims are looking for Obama to move beyond rhetorical
flourishes to tell them how he plans to improve relations and to
what extent he embraces former President George W. Bush's drive for
democracy in a region rife with authoritarian governments.
"He has been great at a rhetorical level, but he has to provide
details about what the United States is going to concretely do to
reach out to the Muslim world," Grand said.
Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at Cairo's Ahram Center for Political and
Strategic Studies, is more skeptical.
"He will speak only in general terms to give the impression that
America is not the enemy of the Arab and Muslim world. He will not
be specific," Rashwan said.
But just as important as what Obama says is where he is giving the
By choosing Egypt, one of only two Arab states to sign a peace deal
with Israel and a longtime strategic ally of Washington in the
region, Obama is sending an important signal on his commitment to
reviving stalled Middle East peace talks, said Daniel Brumberg of
the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"The choice of Cairo is the message," Brumberg said.
Obama will have to tread carefully in his speech to avoid the
appearance that he is endorsing President Hosni Mubarak, whose
government is accused of having a poor human rights record and of
cracking down on political opponents.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously angered the
Egyptian government when she gave a speech in Egypt in 2005 in which
she targeted its human rights record.
Obama administration officials said Obama would not hesitate to
raise "civil society and democracy issues" in talks with Mubarak,
while his speech would address the "full range of issues" such as
the importance of prosperity and freedom.
The White House has also defended the choice of Cairo, saying the
speech is more important than the location.
Obama will deliver the speech at Cairo University in an event
co-hosted by al-Azhar University, the chief center of Islamic and
Arabic learning in the world. Invitees will include Egyptian
"political actors", the administration officials said, while
declining to say whether opposition and human rights activists would
be among them.