- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Egypt next month to deliver a long-anticipated speech about America’s relations with the Muslim world. Afterwards, he will visit Dresden, and the former Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, Germany, which his great uncle helped liberate, before going to Normandy, France to participate in ceremonies commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
Obama’s choice to address the Muslim world from Egypt is not without complications. The most populous Arab country, one that historically has had a huge influence in the media and on public culture across the Middle East, Egypt is a close U.S. ally with a dismal human rights record run by an autocratic regime that jails dissidents, commits torture, and has a cold peace with an Israeli neighbor that is despised by many of its citizens. As such, it demonstrates the problem for an America that wants to promote democracy even while it is tied to friendly autocracies such as that of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Asked why Obama had chosen Egypt for the speech, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "Obviously it is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world, and I think will be a trip, an opportunity for the president to address and discuss our relationship with the Muslim world."
Regarding the country’s poor human rights record, Gibbs said, "I think the issues of democracy and human rights are things that are on the president’s mind, and we’ll have a chance to discuss those in more depth on the trip."
"This is not about who the leaders might be of any certain country," Gibbs added. "This is about the way the president views this relationship, the way he thinks this country should view that relationship, and the shared and common progress that we can make to strengthen that relationship and fight extremists."
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of the Bush administration’s goal to promote freedom in the Middle East at the American University in Cairo in June 2005. "For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither," Rice said. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people." But Washington looked the other way during abuses in Egyptian parliamentary elections held in the fall a few months later, and its appetite for democracy in the Middle East noticeably waned when the Muslim Brotherhood, and later Hamas in the Palestinian territories, did well.
Obama’s speech, scheduled for June 4 at an as-yet undecided location in Egypt comes three days before elections in Lebanon that armed Islamist faction Hezbollah might do well in, and a week before Iranian elections that some see as a portent for the prospects of success for international efforts to engage Iran. It also comes just a couple weeks after Mubarak, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, will have come to Washington for talks on the Middle East peace process.
But all those immediate considerations may be missing the point, former State Department Middle East hand Jon Alterman said.
"I think this is a strategic speech and not a tactical speech that Obama has largely worked out in his head before these day to day considerations," Alterman, now the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Cable.
"It feels to me the way he has talked about it, is that its analogue will be his speech on race in Philadelphia. … I get the sense that this is not a speech for June, it’s not a speech for the year, it’s about our broader set of relationships which have become poisoned and which he seeks to help mend."
Alterman predicted that Obama would not lecture his audience. "Obama is a very interesting personality for them. On the nongovernmental level, the prospect of hated leaders being replaced by a young fresh face is a gripping story. On the governmental level, there will be an appreciation for the fact that when Obama speaks he seems to be convey respect."
But the freshness may fade. "The reality is that Barack Obama is not going to give the Arab world everything they want," Alterman said. "Freshness and hope will yield to the reality of an American policy whose interests are not fully aligned with the Arab world. But the fact that he seems to have some empathy to Islam, speaks in a way that conveys respect, and seems to be extending a hand, creates not only curiosity but excitement about what a different relationship with the U.S. might look like."
When he spoke in Turkey last month, Obama signaled the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world, under his administration, would not be based on fighting terrorism alone. "America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda," Obama said. "We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. … And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith … The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them."
The Europe portion of Obama’s itinerary, with planned visits to the former Nazi death camp at Buchenwald, the German city of Dresden which was destroyed in Allied bombing in World War II, and the D-Day battlefield of Normandy, is being called by some as Obama’s war tour.
"A great-uncle of Obama’s, Charlie Payne, helped liberate a sub-camp at Buchenwald in April 1945 as a member of the 89th Infantry Division," the Associated Press reported. "Gibbs said he did not know whether Payne would accompany Obama to Germany."