One of the greatest challenges facing President Obama when he took office was restoring America’s standing among other nations, especially our standing in the Arab and Muslim world, so badly shattered, on our end, by Sept. 11 – and, on their end, by the war in Iraq.
As press secretary Robert Gibbs has repeatedly pointed out, rebuilding this relationship will not be quick or easy. It’s part of a long process. But, even before Cairo, Obama was off to a good start.
He gave his first television interview as president to Al-Arabiya, an Arab-language network. He called on George Mitchell to restart the Middle East peace process. He went to Turkey and addressed the Parliament. He reached out to Iran. He outlawed torture and signed orders to close Gitmo and start bringing our troops home from Iraq.
That set the stage for his historic appearance at Cairo University and what will be remembered as one of the most powerful and important speeches ever given by any American president. Obama didn’t pull any punches or duck any issues. He coupled a fervent plea for peace with direct challenges to both Arabs and Israelis. He laid out an agenda for Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. And he urged Muslims, Jews and Christians to unite against Islamic extremists.
It’s time, Obama said, to move beyond the built-in prejudices that divide us. The son and grandson of Muslims, now president of the United States, acknowledged feeling a personal responsibility to fight negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. At the same time, he told his Muslim audience, they must see America as it really is. “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.”
And, standing in the land that gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, Obama called on Muslims everywhere to join in denouncing terrorism. “None of us should tolerate these extremists. … They have killed people of different faiths – more than any other, they have killed Muslims.” And their violence, he pointed out, is antithetical to the Holy Quran, which teaches that, “whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.”
On Iraq, Obama repeated his commitment to remove all combat troops by August 2010 and to remove all troops from the country by 2012. To those who still resent the former presence of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, he vowed that the United States would seek no permanent military bases in Iraq or Afghanistan. And he recognized Iran’s right to establish nuclear power plants, while again rejecting their right to build nuclear weapons.
Words are only words, of course. As many commentators have pointed out, the success of Obama’s mission to restore good relations with the Muslim world will depend on his actions to bring peace to the Middle East. So, on that issue, he spoke with unusual bluntness. He reaffirmed our special bond with Israel, while telling its leaders they had to stop building settlements and accept the inevitability of a Palestinian state. For the first time, he actually spoke of a nation called “Palestine,” but told Arabs they first had to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
In some of his most moving language, Obama called for religious tolerance, urging people of all faiths to respect the beliefs and practices of others. And, having just come from Saudi Arabia, where women still aren’t even allowed to drive, he boldly prodded all nations of the Arab world to grant equal rights to women.
One speech isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems. But this one – immediately translated into 13 languages by the State Department and broadcast around the world – has the potential, over time, to bring about dramatic change in our relationship to the Arab world.
In Obama’s vision, we no longer see Muslim nations as countries we can bomb whenever and wherever we want, but as nations whose independence and culture we respect. And they see us no longer as a global bully, but as a friend and partner who leads by example, not by military might alone.
Today, for Muslims worldwide, there’s no doubt the American Dream is still very much alive. They saw dramatic proof of that dream standing before them, in Cairo.