CAIRO (March 16, 2009) — Perceptions are a critical piece of the foreign policy matrix. From the perception of the Islamic world, the Obama administration is ticking off many of the right boxes.
First, President Obama signaled his intention to make a major foreign-policy speech in an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office (details haven’t been announced yet). Then one of his first sit-down interviews was with the Arab channel Al Arabiya, in which he talked about his Muslim heritage. Secretary of State Clinton recently visited Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. And now Mr. Obama has chosen Turkey as a key stop on his first presidential foray overseas.
But despite the initial euphoria about the Obama win, cynicism among the world’s Muslims still runs deep, particularly here in the Arab world.
Turkey is – quite literally – a bridge between East and West. Istanbul, its cultural capital, straddles the border between Europe and Asia. So, too, its politics. After rocky relations with the Bush administration, Turkey has recently been playing a mediating role between the US and Syria, and will probably do the same with Iran. A vibrant democracy, it offers a model for cooperation in the religious-secular divide of the Islamic world.
A few years ago, I accompanied a group of CEOs from multinational media conglomerates on a visit to Turkey led by Henry Kissinger. Alcohol is banned in Islam. Yet at a gala dinner at his home, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamist Justice and Development party, sat with his wife, whose head scarf is a controversial symbol of political Islam in Turkey, as waiters poured wine for the guests. Afterward, there was cognac. It was a vivid sign of this Islamist leader’s non-dogmatic approach.
By visiting Prime Minister Erdogan, Obama is overtly reaching out to what Americans would call “moderate” Islamists. Going to non-Arab Turkey also appears to be an effort to separate US relations with Muslim countries from US policy toward the Arab world. The need for that is evident in a recent University of Maryland poll.
With Pakistan on the brink of collapse, Afghanistan soaking up American troops, and a plethora of challenges in the Muslim former Soviet republics, the US needs to find new issues of common cause with would-be allies – or at least intermediaries – in the Islamic world that surmount, or at least distract from, anger at US Middle East policy.
That is not helped by the perception that US policy toward Israel continues to be dictated by domestic US politics. Mrs. Clinton is the poster child for that.
Earlier this month, newspapers here in Cairo carried front-page photographs of Clinton being kissed by Israeli President Shimon Peres during her visit to Jerusalem. Arabs saw in that a clear message. Ditto what she said – and did not say – about Gaza, Israeli settlements, Hamas, and human rights in Egypt. Many Arabs fear it’s Condoleezza Rice redux. The Israel lobby’s success in torpedoing Obama’s nominee for head of the National Intelligence Council – widely reported here – underlines the perception of business as usual.
Word on the Middle East diplomatic circuit is that the Clintonites at State are even backing off all that talk of Arab political change. Bush, it seems, gave democracy a bad name. Good news for Arab autocrats, bad news for pro-democracy activists who are already muttering about more American hypocrisy.
Arabs are still willing to be convinced about Obama’s motives. The flurry of diplomatic activity and indications that the administration is willing to talk directly with Tehran and even with the Taliban are being praised on the region’s editorial pages. Arabs welcome the fact that the myopia of the past eight years has been jettisoned in favor of a nuanced approach that recognizes the interconnectedness of the many complex policy challenges of the Middle East.
But to be effective, the Obama administration must talk to all the players, not just those approved by Israeli or Arab regimes. If we’re willing to flirt with the Taliban, why wouldn’t we sit down with Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood? There is no peace without Hamas and Egypt may have no future without the Brotherhood.
Obama has the symbolism of outreach to the world’s Muslims down pat, but gestures are cheap in a region where lives are readily sacrificed in symbolic acts of martyrdom. Now he must follow up with real, concrete engagement.
That should involve a serious partnership with democratically elected Muslim governments in places like Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia. These are countries that will not march in lock step with American policy, but that is precisely what makes them so valuable as allies.