Fulfilling the Promises of Cairo

Obama still hasn't turned his Cairo speech into a blueprint for action. Here's how he can take concrete steps to improve the United States' relationship with the Muslim world.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

On June 4, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Cairo’s distinguished Cairo University to deliver an historic address to the Muslim world.

According to a Pew Research Center public opinion poll released this summer, the euphoria that initially accompanied his speech has mostly dissipated in the region. There is a clear improvement in public opinion of the United States in certain influential Muslim countries, including Obama’s former home, Indonesia, and confidence in the president himself is high. However, Obama’s personal popularity has not translated into major improvement across the board in attitudes toward the United States.

Given that it may take much longer for the administration to offer up major foreign breakthroughs that will mitigate Muslim resentment against America, the White House should consider a policy of diplomatic, economic and social engagement to protect the president’s down payment with the Muslim world.

The U.S. government must undertake major reforms to fulfill Obama’s outreach to the 54 states comprising the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It would require a massive retooling of the U.S. government and a major reallocation of foreign assistance. On the diplomatic front, the United States should appoint a full-time observer to the OIC and the 22-member Arab League. In a noticeable failure for U.S. diplomacy throughout the Muslim world, there has never been a sustained U.S. diplomatic engagement with these two major organizations.

With full-time observers, U.S diplomats would accelerate dialogue and plan new engagement opportunities with Muslim states, coordinate trade and development initiatives, and more effectively communicate Muslim views back to Washington from the secretariats of each organization. Moreover, Muslim states consider the OIC and the Arab League important organizations that reflect Muslim viewpoints on crucial matters of interest to Washington, such as Middle East peace, interfaith dialogue, and intra-Muslim state relations.

Moreover, through greater involvement with the OIC, the United States could better utilize the OIC’s Jerusalem Committee to consider the future status of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem in tandem with a re-energized Israeli-Palestinian negotiation track. The White House should consider approaching the OIC to convene a joint U.S.-OIC White House summit to explore ways to expand interfaith dialogue and means to empower Islamic moderates.

The president clearly intends to leverage his Cairo speech to expand U.S. trade and development ties to enable the Muslim world to compete more effectively in a globalizing world. This will require education programs, training, reform, and foreign investment. One important step would be the creation of a joint U.S.-OIC Task Force to develop a Muslim-American Entrepreneurial Development Private-Public Partnership Fund. The goal of this fund would be to help train a new generation of Muslim youth in vocational and entrepreneurial skills. So many Muslim universities educate young Muslims in the "conservative arts" and not in business and vocational skills. The fund’s goals would be to initially develop entrepreneurial and vocational educational material in the languages of each Muslim nation and provide U.S. and local entrepreneurial advisors to identify new sources of business funding and vocational training opportunities.

Improving the economic climate in poorer Muslim countries will also require trade reforms to attract more foreign investment and development. Toward that objective, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office should establish a Muslim world task force to expedite negotiation of U.S. trade and investment framework agreements (TIFAs) with those Muslim nations that so far have not done so (32 OIC members). TIFAs set the stage for bilateral strategic dialogue on trade and investment expansion and have been used to resolve impediments to foreign investment and facilitate the negotiation of bilateral and regional free trade agreements with Muslim countries such as Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain. These agreements have catalyzed increases in foreign investment, job creation, and market reforms.

In addition to trade and investment reforms, there are other developmental initiatives that the Obama administration may consider, including the establishment of a joint U.S.-Muslim World Health Program to focus on providing disease eradication support. Child malnutrition, childhood diseases, diabetes, and tobacco consumption, just to name a few, constitute major health challenges in many Muslim nations. Expanding U.S. medical training to Muslim doctors and introducing new online clinical training to local Muslim healthcare workers could advance healthcare in the Muslim world. When I was ambassador to Morocco, NATO shipped excess medical supplies to Morocco — an important source of pediatric medical equipment for the country.

The Obama administration should also direct the Commerce Department to organize reciprocal trade missions from Muslim nations. These missions would bring Muslim business executives to the United States to meet with U.S. counterparts, helping to break down barriers, facilitate trade, and open prospective Muslim entrepreneurs to new business ideas. The Commerce Department should also establish a roving U.S.-Muslim Job Fair that will visit each Muslim nation to introduce Muslim youth to vocational and entrepreneurial education opportunities.

Finally, the Obama administration should consider creating a U.S.-Muslim Business Volunteer Corps composed of retired U.S. business executives to help train Muslim youth in business skills. Several decades ago, USAID enlisted retired U.S. business executives for such goals, and the program could be dusted off.

Effective U.S. public diplomacy programs in many Muslim countries are nonexistent or underfunded. New and imaginative private-public partnerships are needed to enable the State Department to support the president’s goal of better engaging Muslim mass audiences by enlisting the support of the U.S. media industry more effectively and more consistently.

One such idea developed by Layalina Productions — a Muslim world media technology and production company of which I am president — would use Google Earth as a completely censor-proof Web portal that would enable Muslim and American youth to use blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to communicate. Designated MERKHET (an ancient Egyptian word for sextant), this technology would enable Iran’s youth to communicate without Iranian government interference with Americans.

There are now over 450 private or semi-private media outlets in the Muslim world without adequate cross-cultural television programming to open Muslim minds. Expanding U.S. government support for private-sector media programming production for Muslim media outlets is vital if there is going to be any effective means for the White House to maintain an open line of communication with the Muslim world. A Council on Foreign Relations 2002 Task Force on Public Diplomacy recommended the creation of a new Corporation for Public Diplomacy to enlist the support of the U.S. media industry to begin supplying Muslim networks with new and innovative programs. So far, the State Department has done very little to retool itself to the challenge.

Additionally, Muslim journalists have inadequate access to their fellow U.S. journalists. Establishing a journalism exchange center in Abu Dhabi, linking American and Muslim journalists and bloggers, could facilitate better cross communication.  

In the final analysis, what ails the Muslim world cannot be cured simply by Obama’s words or deeds. It’s stagnant Muslim regimes and radical Muslim clerics who are failing their own people, not the U.S. president. But Obama’s election and personal popularity have opened a small window of opportunity for the United States to divert Muslim hostility toward the real sources of their own ills. Hopefully, the administration will seize every opportunity to avail itself of that opening by beginning to realize some of the sky-high expectations Obama’s speech produced throughout the Muslim world.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola