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President Obama should stick to his message of outreach to Muslims

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, January 14, 2010

The presidency of Barack Obama is becoming tangled, inexorably, in the spider web of terrorism. "We are at war against al-Qaeda," Obama said last week, "and we will do whatever it takes to defeat them."

Obama has no choice but to fight this battle aggressively -- in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other fronts that will emerge. But to be effective in war, Obama needs to be faithful to his ambition to be a peacemaker and agent of change. This was what got him elected -- and raised hopes around the world that he represented something new.

To remind myself of Obama's core message, I have been re-reading the speech he gave last June at Cairo University. "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said. That sentence encapsulated a clear and correct strategic vision.

The Cairo message excited people in the Middle East because it treated the Muslim world and its aspirations with dignity -- and because, let us be frank, it was delivered by an African American whose middle name is Hussein. People sensed that because of who he is, Obama offered a special opportunity to break out of a looming "clash of civilizations." That formula for inescapable conflict is precisely the way al-Qaeda wants the world to think, but Obama was offering something different.

Specifically, Obama pledged in Cairo to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians: "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," he said. He even gave Hamas a nod, by stating the obvious but usually unsayable: "Hamas does have support among some Palestinians."

Many skeptics doubted the Cairo speech. Arabs predicted that if Israel balked at U.S. demands, Obama would fold his hand. Hawks in America and Israel warned that Obama was being naive; America's Muslim adversaries wouldn't be convinced by sweet talk about peace; they understood only the logic of force.

The doubters on both sides now think they have been proved right, given that Obama's peacemaking efforts appear dead in the water, even as he escalates his war-making in Afghanistan and Yemen. The Cairo speech seems a reminder of a brief golden moment: Nice words, but no follow-through.

But in truth, the strategy that Obama proposed in Cairo is more important now than ever. Critics speak as if peacemaking and battling Muslim extremism should be seen as an either/or proposition. What Obama understood a year ago is that the two are linked. The best way to undercut extremists in Iran or al-Qaeda is to make progress on issues that matter to the Muslim world. Guns alone won't do it; if it were otherwise, the Israelis would have battled their way to peace long ago.

Yemen will be a test of whether Obama can fight terrorism in a smarter way than did his predecessor, George W. Bush. The administration recognized immediately that Yemen was a growing haven for al-Qaeda. Since last January, the National Security Council has discussed Yemen in 15 meetings of its Deputies Committee, and Obama has steadily increased covert military and intelligence activities there. U.S. warplanes and bombs are thought to have been used, for example, to attack al-Qaeda training camps in Yemen on Dec. 17.

But U.S. efforts to counter al-Qaeda in Yemen are hindered by the strong anti-American sentiment there. It's the same problem as in Pakistan. You can't turn this anger around just by drinking tea or showering development money. The United States must address issues that people care passionately about, such as the Palestinian problem.

The administration is struggling to revive the stillborn Palestinian peace process. George Mitchell, the president's special envoy to the Middle East, is said to be drafting terms of reference for negotiations and letters of assurance for the parties that will offer more clarity about U.S. positions on key issues. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested the outlines last week when she called for "an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines with agreed swaps" of territory.

Even as he fights al-Qaeda and its allies, Obama needs to be Obama. He needs to continue voicing the Cairo message of outreach to the Muslim world -- not as an alternative to battling extremism but as a necessary component of that fight. We are confronting an enemy that wants to draw us deeper into battle, so that America is more isolated and unpopular. We avoid that spider's trap by solving problems that matter.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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