National Security Network

Obama’s Cairo Speech Hopes to Turn Page on Last 8 Years

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Report 2 June 2009

Diplomacy Diplomacy Abu Ghraib Barack Obama Cairo George Bush Mitt Romney


On Thursday President Obama will deliver his much anticipated address to the “Muslim world” in Cairo, Egypt. The principal goal of the speech is to lay a foundation for better relations between the United States and the peoples of the region. Tin eared statements from President Bush – such as saying that America was on a “crusade” following 9-11 – along with the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and the falsehoods and incompetence that surrounded the invasion of Iraq, all served to tarnish America’s image in the region. Now, as Obama turns the page, conservatives have attacked President Obama’s public diplomacy efforts. Former Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation yesterday where he, in the same speech that he talked about America being “the hope of the earth,” said President Obama was embarking on a “tour of apology.” Obama is not apologizing for the disastrous presidency that preceded him. Instead, he is trying to move beyond it in an effort to reset relations and perceptions. What conservatives fail to understand is that America can’t be a beacon for the world if it is not admired and respected. The collapse of America’s moral authority under President Bush will not be fixed by a single speech, but the speech is part of a larger comprehensive strategy of engagement that is actively being pursued by the Obama administration.

With his address to the Muslim world, President Obama seeks to build a relationship and repair America’s image in the region. “On Thursday, Obama will be in Cairo, where he will deliver a highly anticipated speech that the White House has characterized as a message to the Arab world — and a high-profile opportunity to reshape America's image among Muslim countries in the region,” reports NPR.  The president has ambitious goals for this speech, as McClatchy reports, “President Barack Obama has a sweeping goal for his speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt: to begin remaking the dynamic between the United States and Muslims abroad.”  This is a drastic shift from the past eight years of estrangement with the Muslim world.  The LA Times writes, “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... ‘In the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, the [poll] 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.’” Global respect for the United States plummeted during the Bush years. In 2007 Pew Research found that, “Perhaps the most notable example is Turkey, where America's favorability rating has plunged into single digits -- only 9% of Turks currently have a positive opinion of the U.S., down from 23% in spring 2005, just before [Karen] Hughes took office, and down dramatically from the beginning of the decade, when roughly half of Turks (52%) had a favorable view. Positive views of the U.S. also have declined in Pakistan and Indonesia since 2005. In the Arab world, only one-in-five Egyptians (21%) and Jordanians (20%) have a favorable opinion of the United States.” In contrast, new poll numbers show some potential for President Obama’s high favorability ratings to bring about a positive shift in perceptions of the U.S.  In particular, a recent University of Maryland/Zogby International poll of attitudes in the Middle East showed that 45% of Arabs held a favorable view of the new President. 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. Moreover, there is broad domestic support for President Obama’s strategy. According to last month’s Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner poll, 68% of respondents approved of Obama’s efforts at “improving America’s standing in the world.” The president is seeking to build a relationship with the Muslim world based on mutual respect, as he himself said, “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.  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.” [NPR, 6/2/09. McClatchy, 5/31/09. Pew Research, 11/1/07. LA Times, 6/2/09]

Conservatives like Mitt Romney describe public diplomacy efforts as a “tour of apology” – but Obama is seeking to turn the page on a failed presidency and move America in a new direction.
In a sign that conservatives still have not moved past the failed mindset of the Bush administration, Mitt Romney attacked the President’s efforts to reinvigorate U.S. standing in the world.  Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Romney remarked: “I take issue with President Obama’s recent tour of apology... America’s mistakes are overwhelmed by what America has meant to the hopes and aspirations of people throughout the world... Mr. Obama has been more critical of his own country, while on foreign soil, than any other president in American history. That would be a most unfortunate distinction at any time. But it is particularly so today: with all that is transpiring in the world, in Iran, North Korea, Georgia, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, this is the time for strength and confidence, not for apologizing to America’s critics.”  Romney’s remarks echoed those of Charles Krauthammer, who hysterically claimed that Obama’s intent to reach out to Muslims to build a “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” was “needlessly defensive and apologetic.”  These reactions testify to how distanced from reality conservatives have become, as they ignore the deep public opinion deficit left as a result of the failed policies and leadership of the Bush administration. Furthermore, Obama, as Vice President Biden noted, is not apologizing for anything: “I don't know what he's apologized for. For example, saying we should close Guantanamo is not an apology. That's not an apology saying we fundamental-we don't engage in torture. He didn't go out and say, 'Oh, my God, the fact that the last administration did these things - we're so sorry.' He did say - he just said, 'We don't do torture anymore.’” Responding to a question from a BBC interviewer about whether his upcoming speech in Egypt was an apology, President Obama responded, “No. I think what we want to do is open a dialogue.” [Mitt Romney, 6/01/09. Charles Krauthammer, 1/30/09. Joe Biden, 4/26/09. President Obama, 6/01/09. IHT, 6/27/07. Pew Global Attitudes Project, 6/27/07. NY Times, 2/07/08. University of Maryland/Zogby International, 5/19/09. Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner, 5/19/09]

President’s public diplomacy efforts are part of a larger comprehensive strategy of engaging the Middle East.  Words must be followed with actions, particularly in the Middle East where there is a deep distrust, arising from years of unfortunate policies.  The President spoke to this in a recent BBC interview, saying: “it is my firm belief that no one speech is going to solve every problem. There are no silver bullets. There are very real policy issues that have to be worked through that are difficult.”  So far, there have been strong indications that the Obama’s administration’s actions have followed from this view.  At the end of last month, the Administration announced the creation of the “Global Engagement Directive” at the National Security council, a move which public diplomacy expert and Middle East expert Marc Lynch praised as a recognition that public engagement is “more than just Presidential speeches... an integral part of the policy process, and not just a sales job to be assigned after policy has been formed.”  The Administration has also begun to comprehensively remake U.S. policy toward the Middle East, the historical and cultural center of the Muslim World.  Recognizing Iran’s role as a strong Muslim country, Obama has also taken steps to shift US policy down a more productive path, signaling a shift rhetorically, through his inaugural address and a subsequent message for the Iranian New Year, and last week instructing U.S. embassies and consulates around the world notifying them that “they may invite representatives from the government of Iran,” according to the New York Times. The Administration has also begun outreach to Syria, sending acting Assistant Secretary of Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council Middle East hand Daniel Shapiro traveled to Syria to begin talks.  Finally, Obama appointed Sen. George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, saying, “Now, understand that Sen. Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton... So when he speaks, he will be speaking for us.”  Mitchell has already visited the region on three occasions, showing that the Obama administration plans to make a sustained commitment. And, in a joint public appearance with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama commented on the urgent need for peace: “We can’t continue with the drift and the increased fear on both sides, the sense of hopelessness that we’ve seen for too many years now. We need to get this thing back on track.” [President Obama, 6/01/09. WSJ, 5/27/09. Marc Lynch, 5/29/09. NSN Daily Update, 4/15/09. NSN Daily Update, 3/05/09. NY Times, 6/1/09. AFP, 3/02/09. President Obama, 1/26/09. CNN, 4/21/09. WSJ, 5/16/09. President Obama, 5/27/09]

What We’re Reading

Kim Jong-il reportedly designated his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor.

A Pakistani court ordered the release of an Islamic charity leader accused of fronting for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which committed the November Mumbai attacks.

The Pakistani army rescued dozens of cadets and army staff who had been kidnapped hours earlier by Taliban forces.

Israel and the United States continue to disagree over settlement policy.
  Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with top U.S. officials to work on the disagreement.

An investigative team from the U.N. Human Rights Council arrived in Gaza to look into war crimes allegations against both Israel and Hamas.

An arson attack in Iran killed 5 as tensions rise ahead of next week’s presidential elections.

Money sent home by Mexican workers in the U.S. dropped sharply in the beginning of 2009.

A prominent former Chinese political prisoner was detained just ahead of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4th.

Following his trip to China, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that Chinese leaders are confident in U.S. economic policy steps.  China and the U.S. are set to resume high-level policy discussions in July.

Proposed U.S. Afghanistan commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal faces his confirmation hearing today.

The Obama administration authorized U.S. embassies to invite Iranian diplomats to their Independence Day parties
on or around July 4.

Applications for the Peace Corps rose sharply in the beginning of 2009, a combination of poor job prospects and Obama-inspired idealism.

Commentary of the Day

The Financial Times argues that despite voter apathy and projected low turnout, the European parliamentary elections this week still matter.

Gideon Rachman supports President Obama’s projection of soft power, but worries about raising expectations of its total success.

Dan Southland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, recalls being in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square uprising, almost 20 years ago, and discusses how China’s youth are ignorant of the history.

Human rights attorneys Pedro Nikken and Geoffrey Nice look at the dire situation in Burma
and the U.N. response.