Marc Lynch

Obama scores again, but the game is just starting

 Obama’s speech in Turkey’s Parliament has gotten heavy coverage and rave reviews across the Arab political spectrum.  Even influential newspapers and personalities who are usually quite critical of American foreign policy have expressed frank admiration. Despite the disarray in the public diplomacy bureaucracy (where there is still no nominee for the Under-Secretary of State), I ...

 Obama’s speech in Turkey’s Parliament has gotten heavy coverage and rave reviews across the Arab political spectrum.  Even influential newspapers and personalities who are usually quite critical of American foreign policy have expressed frank admiration. Despite the disarray in the public diplomacy bureaucracy (where there is still no nominee for the Under-Secretary of State), I would say that Obama has already succeeded at the initial public diplomacy phase of his effort to transform America’s relations with the Muslim world.  And he’s not done — I’m fairly sure that despite the fact that he has lived up to his promise to give a major address from a Muslim capital, this was not even "the" speech to the Muslim world that he promised during his campaign. But now will come the real challenge:  transforming the words into deeds and delivering on the promise. 

Several Arab columnists noted with amazement that Obama visited a Muslim country before he visited Israel — which they are taking as a potentially politically costly, and therefore more credible, signal of the importance he places on reaching out to the Muslim world.  And not just any Muslim country — as a number of Arab commentators note, Turkey is particularly popular right now because of Erdogan’s outburst against Shimon Peres in Davos and his outspoken support for Gaza, along with Turkey’s good relations with Syria, Hamas, and others across the great Arab political divide.  If there is another speech to come, as I believe there is, it will be interesting to see how that choice balances the Turkey gambit. 

In terms of content, there was widespread enthusiasm for Obama’s declaration that America was not at war with Islam — a statement which Bush made as well, but with less credibility and clarity.  More important was Obama’s explicit refusal to reduce America’s relations with the Muslim world to the confrontation with al-Qaeda, and his respectful and personal approach to the Islamic world.   I thought that his closing remarks on America and the Islamic world were pitch-perfect:

"the United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject. But I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim work cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda. Far from it.

We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree."

 That’s an incredibly important reframing of the problem, away from the overwhelming focus on al-Qaeda, violent extremism, the war on terror and the other tropes which dominated America’s approach over the last seven years.  It puts al-Qaeda in its appropriate place, on the fringe — a problem to be dealt with, but not the all-consuming focus of America’s relations with the Muslim world.  It would be difficult to do a better job with the public diplomacy embodied by these statements — and the reception thus far across the Arab media vindicates the move.  

 Finally, the Arab coverage prominently featured his insistence on the need for a two-state solution and a Palestinian state.  That’s an important message to be sending right now, and one which captured headlines.  Things look grim on that front at the moment, but the clarity and power of the message rang through. 

  But…  the public diplomacy gambit is only the first step.  For all their enthusiasm, most of the Arab commentators conclude that thus far, Obama’s words and symbolism have not been matched by concrete actions.  Obama has performed masterfully at the public diplomacy phase of recasting American relations with the Muslim world.  But the next step will require concrete steps to translate the words into deeds and measures to begin to institutionalize a different relationship. 

 UPDATE: sharp take on the speech by a Cairo-based friend here, who underscores the importance of the reframing away from al-Qaeda centric view of the Muslim world.  I’m not sure which public diplomacy advocates he has in mind, since this is the approach for which I’ve been arguing for years now, and it’s how we talked about it back during the campaign.  Cheers all around, but the hard work remains.  

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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