Marc Lynch

In defense of Obama’s Muslim outreach

In defense of Obama’s Muslim outreach

President Barack Obama’s well-crafted speech in Jakarta yesterday serves as a useful reminder of some of the early promise of his outreach to the Muslim communities of the world. Praise for his efforts has been rare ever since the crashing disappointment which followed the sky-high expectations raised by his Cairo speech. The litany of complaints is now familiar: failure to deliver on the Israeli-Palestinian peace or on Gaza, little visible follow-through in the months after the speech, the inability to close Guantanamo, escalating drone strikes, the impact of rampaging anti-Islam trends in U.S. domestic politics, and so on. I’ve made all those criticisms myself, and more. With public opinion surveys showing collapsing approval ratings for the United States in the Arab world and rampant media criticism of Obama’s strategy, it’s hard to find anyone willing to defend the administration’s post-Cairo outreach.

But today it’s worth stepping back and offering some praise. The administration has stuck with the president’s clear commitment to restoring positive relations with the Muslims of the world despite all the setbacks, when it would have been really easy to give up or change course. And he has quietly made some real progress in many lower profile areas upon which the media doesn’t focus. The president made clear yesterday that he understands — perhaps better than his critics — that "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust." But, he went on: "I believed then, and I believe today, that we have a choice. We can choose to be defined by our differences, and give in to a future of suspicion and mistrust. Or we can choose to do the hard work of forging common ground." That quiet, long-term commitment may not be as exciting to the media as the peaks and valleys of high-stakes political battles, and isn’t as revolutionary as the Cairo speech seemed to promise, but may ultimately be more important than today’s headlines. If it works in terms of building robust and durable networks of interest with this rising generation of Muslims around the world, then we may wake up a decade from now extremely grateful for efforts which didn’t seem noteworthy today.

Obama’s goal in reaching out to the Muslim world has always had both short-term and long-term dimensions. In the immediate tactical arena, it was urgently important to neutralize the legacy of suspicion and anger left over from the Bush administration by taking advantage of the presidential transition, addressing high profile political grievances and changing the way America talked about Islam. Doing so was central to solidifying the administration’s approach to countering violent extremism and isolating al-Qaeda, and for building support for American foreign policy priorities such as Israeli-Palestinian peace, responsibly withdrawing from Iraq, and dealing with the multifaceted Iranian challenge. Most of the criticism of his outreach efforts follows from disappointment with the outcome of those "high politics" promises — above all, the failures on the Israeli-Palestinian front from the settlements to Gaza, and to a lesser but real extent the continuation of unpopular "war on terror" policies. I share those complaints — the administration may complain that its failures on these fronts have not been from lack of trying, but in the end it’s results which count and the targeted audiences have been very vocal in their dismay.

But there was always a second front to Obama’s outreach to the Muslim communities of the world, one where there’s more success than has been reported. The administration understood that the political openings created by Cairo and Obama’s outreach would only have long-term ramifications if they could be translated into building strong partnerships and networks of common interest with Muslims around the world. They particularly targeted the large and rising youth populations, an investment in the future which had seemed terribly at risk during the post-9/11 "War on Terror" which so many Muslims perceived as American war against Islam. This long-term objective could never be isolated from the political turbulence around the high politics, of course. But without the longer-term investment, any gains from the high politics would only be fleeting.

It’s therefore a quiet success that administration officials have plugged away at their quiet efforts focused on jobs, economic opportunity and entrepreneurship, education, science, medicine, and the like. Officials from the NSC and the State Department and many other agencies have worked hard to put meat on the bones of the Cairo "New Beginning", often with small programs which don’t get much attention but which cumulatively could touch the lives and shape new relationships with a large number of people. The "Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship" brought together a significant number of diverse entrepreneurs from around the world, with an eye towards building sustainable networks among a potentially influential sector of these societies. There have been new science envoys, educational exchanges, medical programs, and internet outreach efforts all designed to build new areas for engagement and long-term partnerships. This isn’t showy stuff, and it isn’t revolutionary. It’s the traditional stuff of public diplomacy, and it often doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

It’s also a quiet success that the Obama administration (like, as I always emphasize) the later Bush administration, has consistently declared that America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. It has maintained its commitment to Muslim outreach and engagement despite the barrage of criticism at home and abroad, and the seemingly meager results. It has done so from a position of much greater domestic political vulnerability than its predecessor, from the "Obama is a Muslim" canard to the cynical mainstreaming of radical anti-Islamic trends in the United States. He’s rejected bad advice to go back on the ideological offensive or recommit to a "war of ideas" which would likely backfire and re-invigorate the dangerous narratives of the U.S. against Islam on which al-Qaeda so clearly depends. This consistent and earnest rhetoric deserves some credit, especially since it carries costs.

Don’t get me wrong — I haven’t changed my mind about many of the criticisms I’ve made on this front over the last year and a half. There are many things I would have liked to have seen done differently, opportunities missed and mistakes made. I worry that whatever progress is made through these quiet efforts is too easily swept away by failures on the Israeli-Palestinian track, drone strikes, or the attention the media lavishes on anti-Islamic agitation. Over-promising and under-delivering is always a risk (a lesson which those demanding Obama take a stronger public stance on, say, democracy promotion in Egypt should keep in mind). But it’s also worth stepping back on a day like today and recognizing some real, quiet accomplishments by the administration which don’t often get noticed.