Obama’s Cairo Two-Step

The mountain goes to Mohammed.

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SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounted how during his time in prison he came to the belief that “If you will take one step toward Allah, Allah will take two steps toward you.”

He had something more personal in mind than American political outreach to the Muslim world, but the point stands. If only Americans had an eloquent, charismatic, man of color who could begin reaching out to the Islamic world, maybe the paradigm of mistrust and hostility between the U.S. and the broader Middle East could be shifted ever so slightly ...

Oh, wait—we do.

During the first few months of his presidency, Barack Obama took a series of small steps toward opening a dialogue between the West and the Islamic world—his interview with al-Arabiya, his Nowruz greeting to Iranians and his address to the Turkish parliament. With his speech at Cairo University this week, he will take a larger one.

Obama’s middle name, “Hussein” (the Middle East equivalent of “Williams”), and his consensus-building style give him a head start with his Muslim audience. But Obama’s early, public opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq remains the singular characteristic that gives him credibility with Muslims and separation from past administrations.

Regardless of what Obama says, his American critics will dismiss the speech as “vague rhetoric,” and we can expect a comparable critique from radicals such as al–Qaida’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who already pre-denounced Obama’s speech as “bloody messages” concealed by “polished words.” But Obama isn’t proposing ready-made solutions for conflict in the region. His speech is meant to propel his administration into the next phase of diplomacy by convincing Muslims that he understands their concerns:

Israel/Palestinians

The Cairo audience will look for confirmation that Obama plans to continue pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—something Netanyahu says he won’t do. But Obama has to convey this without shaking Israel’s confidence in their traditionally tight alliance with the U.S.

Palestinians/Israel

At the same time, Obama has to bolster the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over that of Hamas, but carefully, without making Abbas seem like a puppet of the U.S. and the Israelis.

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