For those who have until now been stuck under particularly weighty rocks, President Obama delivered a speech last Thursday from Cairo University with the intent of addressing the perceived rift between the United States and the Islamic world.
Video of the entire speech is available on YouTube, courtesy of the White House's newly invigorated Web 2.0 information campaign. Coincidentally, the hour-long address was also made available live worldwide via SMS text message. Hopefully anyone who signed up has an unlimited plan.
Obama's discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict served as the evening's sole surprise. In a departure from previous U.S. policy, the president made clear a call for the absolute cessation of expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, signaling a cooling in relations between the U.S. and Israel. While this particular conflict is only one of seven issues which Obama highlighted as comprising the wedge that exists between Islam and the U.S., it may be the most injurious, especially among the Arab contingent of the Muslim world.
Hearing the same words from George W. Bush would have been cause for a great deal of eye-rolling and nose-thumbing. However, Obama has been given a carte blanch among Muslims thanks to his tenable connection to their religion, having been born a Muslim to a father of the faith, and partially raised in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country. And while skepticism about the true aim of U.S. initiatives remains, Obama now does indeed have the ear of Muslim peoples around the globe, having voiced a deep respect for their history and culture, and honoring them by appearing in person in Cairo to address them.
Why should it matter if Obama gains the support of Muslim populations around the globe? It means that Arab leaders can work with the U.S. on key global issues without angering their constituents and losing popular support, and it defuses the vitriolic arguments of anti-U.S. extremists around the globe.
Most importantly, it means that key U.S. foreign policy goals like amelioration in the Israel-Palestine conflict become much more achievable. How? It allows the U.S. to reposition itself not as a global hegemon with a myopic interest in backing Israel, but as an even-handed third party, to whom giving a little at the negotiating table won't mean kicking the hornets' nest back home for Arab leaders.
This raises another question: Are the U.S. and Israel really at loggerheads over the issue of West Bank settlements, or is the apparent cooling in their relationship a coordinated effort to defuse Arab anger and move the peace process forward? That seems unlikely, given Netenyahu's position as head of the hard-line Likud Party, which took over Israel's government by a thin majority last month. Given the fact that the resulting government has a rather weak mandate, it would be difficult to make grand departures from party platform, unless he does so at proverbial gunpoint, i.e., in the event that his country's principal patron, the U.S., makes hard demands. Netenyahu is due to give a major foreign policy related speech this coming Sunday, so watch that for developments in the situation.
As for how far Obama's speech will go toward turning Muslim opinion for the U.S., it depends on two factors: how well the State Department is able to promote U.S. interests among Muslim populations, and how much Obama's political clout can actually get him among the Arab nations.
So far, most reactions are along the lines of "I'll believe it when I see it." I feel the same way.