President Obama has a sweeping goal for his speech Thursday in Cairo: to begin remaking the dynamic between the U.S. 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.
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Tying together all the elements of such a speech is no easy proposition, for his worldwide audience – Muslim and non-Muslim – reflects competing priorities and concerns.
Consider: Lebanese go to the polls just three days after he speaks, Iranians will be preparing for pivotal elections June 12, and both contests pit moderate parties against radical forces. Afghans and Pakistanis are girding for increased U.S. military and political engagement.
Palestinians and Israelis have conflicting stakes. In the U.S., Republicans will look for any window to paint the Democratic president as anti-American, anti-Israel or soft on terrorism.
“It's a very high bar to clear. The expectations are immense,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Middle East Democracy and Development Project at the Washington-based Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “No matter how broadly he speaks, what he says will be parsed through the lens of those disagreements.”
Obama won't lay out a detailed vision for resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis. “I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world,” the president said last week. “That will require, I think, a recognition on both the part of the United States as well as many majority Muslim countries about each other, a better sense of understanding and, I think, possibilities to achieve common ground.”
Obama would like to rally Muslim countries to join in efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program. But while many Arab governments also see Iran as a threat, the issue divides Muslims, in part because Israel is pressing for military action.
The speech will fulfill, with about a month's delay, Obama's campaign promise to make a major address in a Muslim city in his first 100 days in office, and it comes on his fourth foreign trip since he took office in January. He will stop in Saudi Arabia on his way to Egypt, then make stops in Germany and France before returning to the United States.
Muslims tells pollsters that one of the most important things Westerners can do to improve relations with them is to stop seeing them as inferior, said Dalia Mogahed, the Egyptian-born executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
Mogahed also serves on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which provided input for Obama's speech.
“If I were to convey the three major themes that I think would be important to cover in the speech, they would be the idea of respect, cooperation and a demonstration of empathy,” she said.
White House aides have emphasized that Obama will gear his remarks in Cairo to the masses, more than to governments, and to all Muslims, not just Egyptians.
That worldwide audience includes Arabs, but also Muslims altogether removed from the region, living in places with different interpretations of Islam, such as Bosnia or Indonesia, where Obama spent years as a boy.
Still, his speech inevitably will be compared to the address that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made in Egypt in 2005, calling on Arab nations to become more democratic and for Egypt to lead the way.
That was widely viewed as an unwelcome lecture, and the Bush administration's push for rapid democratization backfired, empowering radical groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Obama's approach would cede that ideology in the interest of meeting U.S. strategic goals. “I believe he is not going to say much about democratization and liberalization,” he said.
Obama has been laying a foundation for good will with Muslims for months now, with an interview in January with Al-Arabiya television, videotaped remarks to Iranians on the Persian new year and a speech while he visited Turkey in the spring.
Mogahed said Muslims considered Obama “a testament to what people say they admire the most about the United States, which at the end of the day is meritocracy. He's the son of a nonwhite immigrant in America and was able to go from being the son of a single mom to being president. So it's very significant historically for Muslims around the world.”