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Creating Possibilities in Cairo

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I used to fear that President Obama was overestimating the power of his personal history as an instrument of foreign policy. Now I wonder if he might have been underestimating.

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In several interviews during the long presidential campaign, Obama mentioned the potential impact in other countries of seeing an American president with an appearance and a life story like none of his predecessors. He spoke of how the Muslim world especially, addressed by a president who had a Muslim father and who spent years of his childhood in a Muslim country, might be more inclined to believe that the United States is not an enemy of Islam.

But nations tend to act on the basis of perceived national interest, not personality. I thought that in the final analysis, if Obama became president -- which seemed a very long shot when I first heard Obama mention this theme in a March 2007 interview -- he would be seen as friend or foe depending on how he conducted U.S. foreign policy.

Now, after Obama's trip to the Middle East, I think we were both right.

Taking a cold-eyed view of international affairs is never wrong. But it's also wrong to ignore the spectacle of an audience member, at Obama's Cairo University speech, interrupting an American president to shout, "We love you!" You will recall that the last memorable presidential appearance in the Arab world was the news conference in Iraq at which George W. Bush dodged two shoes hurled at his head.

Not being Bush was a big factor. But at least as important was being Obama -- and being able to say, as the president did in Cairo, that "I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed."

Obama was referring to the "generations of Muslims" in his father's Kenyan family, his early years in Indonesia and his experience working in Chicago communities where "many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith." The most important word in that sentence, however, came at the end: By saying "revealed" rather than "born," Obama was acknowledging Islam as a divinely given faith.

Obama quoted liberally from the Koran, drawing applause. Perhaps more important was that he opened the speech by putting Islam in the historical context that many Muslims believe the West willfully ignores. He spoke of how the Islamic world kept the light of civilization burning during Europe's Dark Ages -- and mentioned the Koran that Thomas Jefferson kept in his library.

Obama was speaking the language of Islam in a tone of respect. What a concept.

The rest of his speech consisted essentially of a summary of U.S. policy in the Muslim world, and in truth there were no real departures from traditional American policy. Prior administrations have called for a Palestinian state, and Obama hasn't been nearly as tough with Israel as, say, James Baker's State Department during the administration of George Bush the Elder. Obama had nothing substantive to announce on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he properly asserted the right of the United States to defend itself against terrorists.

Familiar policies sounded different coming from Obama, though -- not just because of his identity but also because he showed a little humility. He acknowledged that in recent years our nation had acted in ways "contrary to our ideals," and noted that he had ordered an end to torture and the closing of the prison at Guantanamo. There are those who believe that admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness. I think it's a sign of confidence and strength, and I believe that's how it was received by Obama's intended audience.

Perhaps the best indication of how Obama played in Cairo is the reaction of his competitors for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. The Associated Press reported Sunday that the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based guerrilla group Hezbollah, an influential radical Saudi cleric and the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood all warned followers not to be taken in by Obama's seductive words -- which suggests a fear that Obama had been dangerously effective. A Web site that often reflects the thinking of al-Qaeda referred to the president after the speech as a "wise enemy."

The fact that many Muslims now see a sympathetic figure in the White House creates new possibilities. It turns out that being Obama matters more than I thought.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. ET. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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