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Obama's Big Muslim Test

By Dan Froomkin
12:58 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Expectations are mounting for President Obama's big speech to the Muslim world from Cairo on Thursday -- and his approach is coming into clearer focus, as well.

Margaret Talev and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers:

President Barack Obama has a sweeping goal for his speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt: to begin remaking the dynamic between the United States and Muslims abroad.

He'll declare a clean break from the Bush administration's "war-on-terror" approach to foreign affairs and forcefully endorse establishing a Palestinian state.

He'll talk about his respect for Islamic culture and call for an era of partnering with Muslim nations in areas of common interest, among them curbing violent extremists before they destabilize Muslim nations and threaten the West.

Having publicly demanded that Israel stop building settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, he'll also ask Arab nations collectively to recognize Israel's existence.

Tim McGirk writes for Time:

Obama's Cairo speech is supposed to set a new course for U.S. policy in the turbulent Middle East; the key to its success is to promote the image that his Administration is taking a more evenhanded approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict than did his predecessor. But this has not gone down well with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's hawkish Cabinet, which is grumbling in the Israeli press that Obama has gone too far the other way, supposedly granting concessions to Palestinians that are "unfair" to Israelis.

Indeed, Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times:

As President Obama prepares to head to the Middle East this week, administration officials are debating how to toughen their stance against any expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

She also notes that Obama:

will begin the Middle East leg of the trip in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he will take King Abdullah a wish list from not just himself, but from Israeli and Palestinian officials as well. Officials said Mr. Obama was hoping that King Abdullah would agree to make an overture to Israel that could, in turn, get Israel to move more quickly on a peace process.

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek that:

George W. Bush set the bar so low... [a]ll Obama has to do to be a success is elicit applause—rather than a fusillade of hurled shoes.

But he has privately told friends that his goal is far higher: nothing less than to help "reconcile Islam and modernity." He will pay homage to the Golden Age of that culture — its glorious achievements in mathematics, science, literature and diplomacy—and note that Muslim scholars rescued from oblivion the Greek and Roman (i.e., the "Western") canon. He also will draw on the by-now-familiar story of his own life. A Christian son of an African-Muslim father, he spent years in Muslim-majority Indonesia, attending a public school run by, but not suffused with, the teachings of Islam. All of this, Obama thinks, not only allows him, but obliges him, to play a grand role as bridge builder....

In the diplomatic community, there is little doubt the president is doing the right thing in Cairo. "President Bush liked to talk about our shared values, but it came off as didactic," said Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution. "His escalating series of military interventions left people in Muslim-majority countries feeling imposed upon. Obama's speech is a game-changer, because he's going to say that we are partners and equals."

Nevertheless, Fineman warns of "risks, large and small." For instance, "that the incorrigibles in the neighborhood — the true terrorists — will see him as a naif and be emboldened by that thought." Also "that he will become a prisoner of his own words, and the high expectations they create."

Read my most recent Middle East items here.

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