Obama takes a different tone, and Muslims say they like it

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In 10 days, President Barack Obama has transformed the U.S. dialogue with the Muslim world.

His tools have been carefully chosen words of reconciliation, the decision to close Guantanamo Bay prison and the early dispatch of a Middle East peace envoy.

"The reaction has been phenomenal. People thought the president was sincere, authentic," said veteran Arab journalist Hisham Melhem, who interviewed Obama last week in Washington on al Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite TV network.

It was Obama's first television interview as president, a long-planned gesture that he used to tell the world's more than 1.5 billion Muslims that "Americans are not your enemy" and that he planned to address them with "a language of respect."

Former President George W. Bush often said much the same thing, but coming from Obama, the words seemed to carry a different meaning. The president clinched the deal, Melhem said, by reminding his audience that some of his family members are Muslims.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went further. "There's a great exhalation of breath going on around the world as people express their appreciation for the new direction that's being set," she said, citing her phone calls with world leaders.

So far, so good.

Obama's words and actions have raised expectations, in Washington and the Middle East, of major changes in U.S. policies that have been unpopular in the Arab world. U.S. officials acknowledge that those changes are likely to be slow and painful, if they come at all.

"You have to start somewhere," said a White House official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

One example is the Middle East, where Obama dispatched a special envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, less than a week after Inauguration. Obama's given no sign whether he'll retreat from what Arab leaders and populations consider Bush's pro-Israel policies.

The other issues that have inflamed the Islamic world include Iraq, where 140,000 U.S. troops remain, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas, which is likely to heat up — and even the Guantanamo prison, which remains open for another year, per Obama's executive order.

Still, Obama's outreach to Muslims since he took office is "a superb first step," and has undercut the propaganda of al Qaida and other Islamic radicals, said former ambassador Edward Djerejian, who chaired a 2003 panel on public diplomacy toward the Muslim world.

"Those who are opposed to us . . . like the Islamic radicals, will find fault. . . . But for a large majority of people this is seen as a new approach to the greater Middle East that might bring some meaningful changes in our policies," Djerejian said of the al Arabiya interview, which was broadcast around the world.

"It has to be translated into specific policies, specific approaches," said Djerejian, the founding director of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.

Obama acknowledged this in his interview. "Ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions," he said. But he warned against expecting rapid progress in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Like any president, whether new in office or reaching his tenure's end, Obama faces hurdles of substance and timing in making peace.

He promised during the campaign to give a speech in a major Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office. Aides say he'll keep the promise — but it may have to slip for a few weeks or more because of a spate of international conferences in April he has to attend.

The White House and the State Department are wrestling with when and how to make a gesture toward Iran, whose suspected nuclear program, support for terrorism, and influence in Iraq and Afghanistan make it one of Obama's top foreign policy challenges.

One decision that Bush left to him was the timing of opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran, the first American diplomatic presence in the Iranian capital since the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis.

There's debate about whether a move now would inadvertently boost President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently announced through an aide that he'll stand for re-election in June, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats.

Obama offered to engage with Iran if it "unclenched its fist." The Iranian president responded by saying that Iran would welcome a change in U.S. policy, provided that it was more than a shift in tactics and was accompanied by an apology for U.S. "crimes" against Iran.

Many Iranians are hoping that Obama won't wait until presidential elections there in June, a McClatchy reporter was told in Tehran. That may be exactly what Obama and his advisers decide to do, however.

Obama's Middle East peace initiative is complicated by Israel's elections on Feb. 10 and ongoing sporadic violence in Gaza, despite an informal truce between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Yet even here, Obama and his envoys have used a different tone. More clearly than Bush did, they've expressed sympathy for Palestinian civilian casualties and humanitarian suffering, and urged Israel to open Gaza's borders to aid and commerce.

One U.S. official who follows public opinion in the Muslim word said the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Obama's early moves comes with a caveat.

"They don't see any indications that there would be major progress in the direction that they'd like to see" on specific issues, he said, requesting anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "But they're more than happy to let the president try."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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