Analysis: Obama offers unclenched fist to Muslims

A president known for his soaring oratory admitted his words alone would not change a thing.

obama cairo 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama cairo 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama offered the world the audacity to hope for peace in the Middle East and a better understanding between the United States and Muslims. Still, a president known for his soaring oratory admitted his words alone would not change a thing. "No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust," he said. A vast array of knotty issues cloud American relations with the Muslim world, but none rankles like US ties to Israel and massive support for the Jewish state in the heart of the Arab Middle East. In a sharp break with US policy, Obama approached his historic Cairo speech by opening a public rift last month with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, publicly demanding that he stop building settlements on the West Bank. The newly elected Israeli leader has refused, leaving him openly on the outs with Washington and in a position that could shorten his tenure at the top of the Jewish state's government. Obama said the US-Israeli bond was "well-known" and "unbreakable," but that Washington "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." Obama's approach was sweeping and evenhanded throughout the speech. In the face of likely criticism at home, the deeply pragmatic American president, a black man whose father and grandfather were Muslim, owned up to serious American mistakes in relations with followers of the Prophet Muhammad. But he warned, recalling the terrorist attacks in the US on Sept. 11, 2001: "America can never tolerate violence by extremists." Key to cutting through the Middle East thicket and bettering US-Muslim relations, Obama said, was construction of a durable peace among Arabs and Israelis, a willingness on all sides to make difficult and politically dangerous sacrifices to reach a goal that has eluded the world for six decades. Speaking from the lectern in an ornate hall at Cairo University in a speech also sponsored by al-Azhar, one of the oldest centers of Islamic learning, Obama issued an ambitious seven-point manifesto for improving US ties with the Islamic world and its estimated 1.5 billion Muslims. While the majority of the world's Muslims live in Asia, the growing Islamic militancy took root largely in the Middle East. The dramatic strike against the United States on 9/11 was the work of Arabs under the direction of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was born in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden cited anger at US support for Israel and the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia as the guiding philosophy of the terrorist organization that drew American forces into wars in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was believed to be hiding, and Iraq, which was flooded by al-Qaida fighters after the US invasion in 2003. Those wars and US policy toward Israel have produced a growing belief in the Muslim world that the United States is at war with Islam. Recalling his speech in Ankara, Turkey, earlier this year, Obama said: "America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam." And he restated American plans to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 and declared US forces would leave Afghanistan as soon as Washington could be sure it and neighboring Pakistan no longer were safe havens for bin Laden and his terrorist compatriots. But Obama dwelled most heavily on an Arab-Israeli peace. "Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed," he said. "It is easy to point fingers," the president said. "But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security." Easy to say. Harder is overcoming six decades of hatred and bloodshed, and the entrenched interests that face Obama at home, where it will be difficult to defend policy that appears to tip too far away from Israel.