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Obama's Outreach To Muslim World Falters

President Barack Obama speaks about security enhancements in the wake of the attempted airline bombing on Christmas day, at the White House on January 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson
President Barack Obama speaks about security enhancements in the wake of the attempted airline bombing on Christmas day, at the White House on January 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.

From his inaugural address on the steps of the nation's Capitol to his historic June speech at Cairo University, President Obama has repeatedly pledged to repair U.S. relations with the Muslim world, where the U.S. is waging two wars.

He gave his first interview as president to Dubai's Arabic-language cable network Al-Arabiya. He promised to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay and banned harsh prisoner interrogation tactics.

But as the first anniversary of Obama's presidency nears, and he grapples with national security issues raised by the al-Qaida-linked Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner, the high expectations of his "new way forward" have given way to skepticism among many in the Arab world, experts say.

"There's no question that there has been a downturn" in optimism about Obama, the son of a Kenyan-born Muslim, says Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

"They're not giving up on this administration," says Telhami, who has advised Obama. "But they're frustrated and trying to reconcile their expectations."

Obama may remain personally popular in the Middle East, but American foreign policy — particularly as it continues to play out in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is not.

"Personalities may change, but American policies continue," says Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East program. "In the Muslim world, the story is about the continuation of the policies of the previous administration."

Lack of Mideast Accord

The Obama-ordered enhanced screening, including pat-downs, of U.S.-bound airline passengers from 13 majority-Muslim countries and Cuba in the wake of the terrorist attempt has already angered many in the Middle East.

And on Tuesday the administration announced that it would halt the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen, where the would-be Christmas Day bomber allegedly received his al-Qaida training.

But it is the administration's lack of progress in helping to resolve the age-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict that remains at the core of growing doubts about the president in the Arab world — more so, experts say, than the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or any perception of racial profiling in the name of U.S. national security.

"It is the prism of pain through which Arabs see Americans," Telhami says.

"There was anticipation that the administration was going to be very rapid in addressing the Arab-Israeli issue."

Expectations were particularly high after Obama's Cairo speech in which he supported an independent Palestinian state and a freeze on Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu subsequently defended the settlements and said expansion would continue to accommodate "natural growth."

U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to arrive in Israel next week in what is seen as an effort to rekindle stalled diplomatic efforts.

Personal Popularity Not Enough

Middle East expert J. Scott Carpenter, who served in the State Department during George W. Bush's administration, says that expectations about Obama's ability to fundamentally change the U.S. relationship with Muslims around the world were always overblown.

"His effort, however welcome, was never going to produce the results that he wanted to see — and to believe so would be naive," says Carpenter, who is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that is considered pro-Israel. That's largely because of the Arab-Israeli impasse, he says.

Telhami agrees: "A lot of people in Washington mischaracterized the source of the problem for the U.S. in Arab and Muslim countries as one based primarily on language and style of communication — that once you get rid of the Bush administration and have a new discourse the relationship would be transformed."

Not so, Telhami says, and his polling has shown that those surveyed in the Middle East remained focused on issues rather than language or Obama's personal story.

Carpenter said that in his Cairo speech Obama attempted to "build bridges and stress partnership, but the core issue is that people there wanted to hear that we were going to twist Israel's arm."

S. Abdallah Schleifer, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and professor at the American University in Cairo, says that Obama made a tactical mistake in his Cairo speech by voicing support for a two-state solution and a halt to settlements without having an agreement in hand.

"He had a good sense of what has caused pain to Arabs and Muslims, but not a good reading on Israeli politics," Schleifer says.

"He sinned out of virtue, but it was politically naive," he said. "He ended up having to back away."

Work Behind The Scenes

Behind the scenes, however, activists say that the administration continues to move ahead on other goals outlined in the president's Cairo speech — from working with the Arab world to confront violent extremism and nuclear proliferation to advocating for human rights, religious freedom and economic development.

"People who are working on the issues are holding steady," says Leena El-Ali, head of programming for Muslim-Western understanding at Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution organization.

"Perhaps because we do this day in and day out, we never thought this would be easy," says El-Ali. "We never thought other things would be held equal as the president tried to carry out his initiatives."

She says the greatest concern she hears among Middle Easterners is that Americans won't have the patience to build a new relationship with Arabs and Muslims.

"The fear has always been that they'll move on — and that really plays into the hands of the enemy," she says.

Moderately Hopeful

Daniel Brumberg, acting director of the U.S. Institute of Peace's Muslim World Initiative, is among those who say they are still hopeful that the administration can build better relationships within the Arab world — a job recently complicated, he says, by the very real need to ratchet up the nation's response to the terrorism threat.

"The president really needs to get out the message that he and the secretary of state are engaged on these issues, and that's not easy to do because of the focus on international terrorism," Brumberg says.

He acknowledges that the Muslim world has heard many wonderful promises "without much progress."

"Their impatience is understandable, but Washington doesn't work with deliberate speed," Brumberg says.

But Telhami warns that patience on the Arab-Israeli issue is running very thin.

"I happen to believe that if a two-state solution does not occur on the clock of this administration, it will probably never happen," he says. "At least people in the region will assume it will never happen."

And that, he and others fear, will encourage support for militant alternatives — and have enormous implications well beyond the Middle East.