Obama’s Cairo Two-Step

The mountain goes to Mohammed.

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Reinforcing Moderates

Obama must provide “ammunition” for Muslim moderates seeking to counter the anti-U.S. sentiment among their constituencies—tricky in a region where we define “moderate” as “pro-U.S.”—while some of those “moderate” regimes, like Egypt’s, deny political freedoms to their own citizens while preaching about liberation for Palestinians.

Mending Fences

While some American conservatives are only concerned with asserting American infallibility in foreign affairs, the president will be trying to show a little superpower humility. After years of throwing around terms like “Islamic fascists,” we’ve effectively been calling our opponents in the Muslim world the equivalent of the N-word for the better part of a decade, and Obama has to walk back some of that rhetoric before we can get a fresh start.

Repudiating Terrorists

But Obama will reinforce the point that the use of violence by groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or various factions of the Taliban is antithetical not only to the security interests of the West, but also to the development of long-term stability and prosperity in Muslim countries.

There’s no chance that what Obama says will get any of these groups to renounce violence—their ideologies are too entrenched. But he’ll try to shift the rhetorical burden toward them to justify themselves to their own constituencies, underscoring his message to extremists that “You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed.”

Obama may get immediate feedback on whether he’s had an impact on regional politics: Iran holds elections on June 12, featuring incumbent president and U.S. antagonist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against relative moderate, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi; and on June 7, the Lebanese will vote in a contest that pits a muddled Sunni/Christian/Druze coalition against a muddled Hezbollah/Christian coalition.

Obama’s Cairo speech is part of an overture that includes subtler forms of outreach with which people have now become familiar, like the way he pronounces “Pakistan” (“Pah-kih-stahn”) and “Iran” (“Ihr-ahn”),  cultural notes sounded during the Democratic presidential primary debates that first signaled the possibility that he was attuned to the concerns of the Muslim world.

And to the degree that Muslim societies look to change their relationships with the U.S., Obama’s recipe of cultural nuance and diplomatic shoe leather has made them more receptive to listening. A recent Zogby-University of Maryland poll found that 51 percent of Arabs were “somewhat hopeful” about Obama’s foreign policy, although an Ipsos-McClatchy poll finds that Obama’s favorability rating in Egypt is still only at 35 percent.

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