Dan Balz's Take
High Expectations for Obama's Cairo Speech
By Dan Balz
President Obama has set a high bar for his trip to the Middle East and Europe this week. By his own description, he is on a truth-telling mission. The challenges are clear: Can he successfully reach out to the Muslim world without offending Israel? Can words move either side to do what they have resisted in the past?
Like so much about Obama's foreign policy, this trip will be viewed through the prism of the Bush administration and the degree to which Obama's administration represents continuity or a new direction. Clearly his goal is to signal a new era in relations with the Muslim world. But Obama's words will be measured and analyzed by audiences with conflicting interests, ancient grievances and long memories of other presidents' records.
The president's itinerary includes Saudi Arabia, Germany and France. He will dine privately with King Abdullah in Riyadh, visit the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp and later join in ceremonies commemorating the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. But the centerpiece of the trip will be his big speech in Cairo on Thursday, designed to open up a new relationship with the Muslim world. It will also be the most significant statement from Obama to date about moving forward the Middle East peace process.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that no one in the administration expects that one speech will change everything -- certainly not quickly. Obama, in an interview with National Public Radio, said that, with a new government just formed in Israel, the process is at the beginning stages. But expectations have been building up around the speech and along with those expectations, hard questions for the president.
Obama was pressed by NPR's Michele Norris and Steve Inskeep about the challenge of developing a new relationship with the Muslim world without demonstrating America's willingness to press Israel harder for changes in its policies. If Israel continues to ignore U.S. demands for an end to settlement activity -- which Obama has called for publicly and privately -- and the U.S. continues to support Israel, how will that enhance American credibility in the Muslim world?
Obama said it will be important for the United States to follow through on its words, but added, "I haven't said anything yet, because it's early in the process."
Still, he made clear he intends to take a firmer posture on these questions than some of his predecessors -- at least theoretically. "It is important for us to be clear about what we believe will lead to peace and that there's not equivocation and there's not a sense that we expect only compromise on one side," he said. "It's going to have to be two-sided and I don't think anybody would deny that, in theory."
He was quick to add that the reality is far more difficult due to conflicts within both the Israeli and Palestinian communities. Whether he ultimately adopts a tougher line in his approach will be the real test.
On the eve of his departure, Obama reaffirmed America's close relationship with Israel. "I think that as a vibrant democracy that shares many of our values, obviously we're deeply sympathetic to Israel," he said. And as long as there are threats from others in the region to Israel's security, the United States will feel it is "important to back this stalwart ally."
But he said that will not dissuade him from speaking frankly to its friend. "What is also true is that part of being a good friend is being honest," he said. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory in the region, is profoundly negative -- not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region."
How frankly will Obama speak to the Muslim world as he seeks to change perceptions of the United States? He bristled during one part of the NPR interview that touched on the fact that he will be speaking in Egypt, a U.S. ally with an undemocratic government.
He had already spoken in Turkey, Obama responded, noting that it was a democracy that "some Turks would say has flaws." He went so far as to say that there are Americans who believe American democracy is flawed as well.
"Are you about to say Egypt is just a country with some flaws?" Inskeep asked.
"No, no what I'm about -- don't put words in my mouth, Steve, especially not in the White House," a testy Obama responded.
Wherever he speaks, Obama said, be it in Egypt or China or Russia, his goal will be to affirm the values of human rights and democracy. "But I think it's a mistake for us to somehow suggest that we're not going to deal with countries around the world in the absence of their meeting all our criteria for democracy."
Interpretations of the speech in Cairo will also be influenced by what he says about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, especially, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons -- an issue of paramount importance particularly to Israel.
A speaker as gifted as Obama should have no trouble finding appropriate words to call on all sides to find new ways to resolve their differences peacefully and to signal his commitment to establishing a new relationship with the Muslim world. But in the Middle East, details matter most, not sweeping statements.
That is not necessarily the purpose of Obama's speech in Cairo. The details will come soon enough. But the ultimate measure of whether this week's visit is a success is whether what Obama says begins to change behavior among parties who have so often frustrated the efforts of previous presidents to make peace.
Posted at 3:26 PM ET on Jun 2, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
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