Obama breaks from usual Mideast policy

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

WASHINGTON -- President Obama has gotten tough with Israel and chosen Cairo -- where President Hosni Mubarak rules with a firm hand -- for his much-awaited overture to the Islamic world in what appears to be a clear break from decades of U.S. policy.

Many issues cloud American relations with the Muslim world, but none rankles like U.S. ties to Israel and massive support for the Jewish state in the heart of the Arab Middle East.

While the majority of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims live in Asia, the growing militancy took root largely in the Middle East. The strike against the U.S. on Sept. 11 was the work of Arabs under the direction of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was born in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden cited anger at U.S. support for Israel as the guiding philosophy of the terrorist organization that drew American forces into wars in Afghanistan, where he was thought to be hiding, and Iraq, which was flooded by al-Qaida fighters after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Those wars and U.S. policy toward Israel have produced a growing belief in the Muslim world that the United States is at war with Islam.

Given those realities, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs played down expectations of a quick turnaround in U.S.-Muslim relations after Obama's Thursday speech.

"This is about resetting our relationship with the Muslim world. ... We don't expect everything to change after one speech," he said.

In an interview broadcast Tuesday on French television, Obama warned against heightened expectations.

"I think it is very important to understand that one speech is not going to solve all the problems in the Middle East," Obama said. "And so expectations need to be somehow modest."

But Obama's public demand last month that Israel stop settlement activity on land the Palestinians want for a state was a clear prelude to the Cairo speech and a sign that he's serious about regaining the United States' role as an honest broker in that region, a policy switch that is bound to pay dividends across the Muslim world.

"There is no question that this is a break from the past," said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Miller, who was deeply involved in the U.S. peacemaking-efforts during the Clinton administration, said it is clear Obama will not be "coddling the Israelis." At the same time, he said, the president does not appear to have developed his policy on Israel beyond demanding it stop building settlements.

"I don't see that he has an 'or else' he is ready to use" against recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has flatly rejected the president's demand on settlements.

In a pre-trip interview with National Public Radio, Obama was diplomatically blunt.

"Part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory in the region, is profoundly negative not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region," Obama said.

By linking Israeli settlement activity to "U.S. interests," Obama may well have been laying out part of his planned speech to the Muslim world.

"I bet the speech will largely be about the Arab-Israeli stalemate," said Miller, adding that Obama also "will have to address Arab authoritarianism."

By choosing to speak in Cairo, Obama opened himself to criticism that grows out of Mubarak's long and authoritarian rule in Egypt, a leading Arab country.

Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was the first of only two Arab leaders to sign a peace treaty with Israel. He was assassinated by Muslim radicals three years later in 1981. Jordan's deceased King Hussein signed a peace accord in 1994.

Seeking to head off criticism of having selected Cairo for the much-awaited speech, Obama told NPR:

"I think it's a mistake for us to somehow suggest that we're not going to deal with countries around the world in the absence of their meeting all our criteria for democracy."

U.S.-Egyptian relations were severely strained under former President George W. Bush as he pushed for democratization throughout the Arab world in conjunction with the Iraq war.

The State Department announced on Tuesday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would travel to Egypt for Obama's speech and meetings with Mubarak, a sign that the administration is counting on Egypt to play a moderating role and to serve as a mediator in any larger peace initiatives in the Middle East.

By changing focus toward the Arabs and showing a willingness to open a public rift with the hard-line Netanyahu, Obama may score points on style with his Islamic audience. But the game won't be won until he manages to negotiate a larger peace among the Arabs and Israel.

"It's a good thing he's patient," Miller said. "In the Middle East, there is only long and longer."

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