Marc Lynch

Can Obama’s Muslim engagement survive Gaza?

Can Obama’s Muslim engagement survive Gaza?

One year ago today, President Obama delivered a much anticipated speech in Cairo, Egypt in which he pledged “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” That new beginning seemed a long time ago this week, as Muslims expressed outrage over America’s seeming support for Israel’s naval commando attack on an aid convoy headed towards Gaza. It is no accident that the anniversary of Obama’s speech has gone virtually unremarked in the Arab media this week, except for a few comments about unmet promises and some juxtaposition of that glorious moment with America’s anemic response to Gaza. 

The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told a press conference that he did not believe that the American position would have a great impact on Obama’s relations with the Muslim communities of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Obama administration does not change its cautious approach quickly and forcefully address the blockade of Gaza which is the real heart of this week’s scandal, it will confirm the crystallizing narrative of a President which either can not deliver on its promises or did not mean what he said. This would be a sad epitaph for the President’s  carefully nurtured outreach to the Muslim world.

From the administration’s earliest days, it emphasized the need to repair America’s relations with the more than one billion Muslims of the world who, while extremely diverse, also share a common religious bond and came widely to believe that America was at war with Islam. President Obama discarded the language of a “war on terror” in order to deny violent extremists like al-Qaeda the opportunity to define America’s relations with the world’s Muslims. It viewed this not as a luxury, but as an urgent strategic necessity for winning the war against al-Qaeda and restoring America’s standing across the world.

Nothing demonstrated the priority placed on America’s outreach to Muslims as powerfully as President Obama’s “New Beginning” speech in Cairo. The speech addressed directly the issues of greatest contention: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, violent extremism, women’s rights, and democracy and human rights. Obama recognized the necessity of engaging directly with these contentious political issues if he was to get a hearing on new forms of cooperation around issues of common interest. The president shrewdly gambled that respectful but direct engagement on such political issues would open the door to positive engagement in areas upon which a long-lasting durable relationship could be built–especially the reinforcing confluence of education, economic development, and science and technology.

The president’s speech was received warmly by Muslims around the world who were eager for a fresh start after the Bush administration, about which their negative opinions were long since fixed. Gallup polls show that approving views of the job performance of the leadership of the United States jumped 22 percent in Mauritania, 13 percent in the Palestinian territories, and 12 percent in Egypt between February and March of 2009 and the months immediately following the Cairo speech.

But the high expectations raised by Obama’s Cairo speech led to a backlash when few concrete programs immediately materialized. Within months, grumbling began about America’s failure to match words with deeds. To the frustration of the White House, Muslims focused more upon America’s failure to compel Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem than on the call for a broad new relationship between the United States and the Muslim communities of the world. This should not have been a surprise: as Obama himself clearly recognized when he decided to prioritize it in Cairo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for decades been the litmus test by which Muslims and Arabs judge American credibility and intentions. If the White House believes its outreach efforts can proceed as if the Gaza flotilla debacle had not happened, then it has learned nothing from its struggles last summer.

While little noticed, the administration has in fact eventually begun to deliver on the promises made in Cairo. It created a new corps of American businesses to partner with counterparts in Muslim majority countries, and hosted 250 Muslim entrepreneurs from around the world at a Summit of Entrepreneurship as part of an effort to promote new economic opportunities. It named science envoys to Muslim majority countries, and planned to launch centers of scientific excellence around the world. Its withdrawal from Iraq remains on track, it has renounced torture, and it has dropped the rhetoric of a “war on terror.” And it has used social media to build networks based on common interests–especially among the Muslim world’s massive, discontented youth population.

But those efforts have struggled to gain traction with Muslim publics still more inclined to focus on “big ticket” political issues, in part because of the limited media attention to such initiatives. The inability to make progress on a Middle East peace agreement, the lack of progress on closing Guantanamo, and the widely reported use of drone strikes in Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Yemen have fueled a narrative that Obama has in fact changed little despite his more appealing rhetoric. For months there has been a palpable sense that the Obama bubble has burst. Gallup tracking polls show that between February and April of this year approval figures dropped 9 percent in Mauritania, 4 percent in the Palestinian territories, and 18 percent in Egypt.

The Gaza flotilla crisis therefore threatens the President’s ambitions far more than his administration appears to recognize. The initial U.S. response, perceived as reflexively supporting Israel against near-universal international criticism over the blockade of Gaza and its attack on the aid convoy, has sparked a torrent of outrage. The new networks based on common interests, so central to the administration’s vision, will likely disintegrate in the face of sharp disagreements over policy. If Obama genuinely believes in the urgent strategic imperative of rebuilding relations with the world’s Muslim communities, he must quickly–and personally–address the ongoing blockade of Gaza and use the crisis as an opportunity to underscore the need for a peace process and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Palestinians. If he tries to ignore the issue or simply defend Israel’s actions, then the first anniversary of the Cairo speech will also be its epitaph.

Kristin M. Lord is vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, and Marc Lynch is the Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and co-editor of the Middle East Channel. They recently published the CNAS report America’s Extended Hand: Assessing the Obama Administration’s Global Engagement Strategy.