US President Barack Obama’s intent to deepen engagement in the Middle East is being described as a bold departure from his immediate predecessors. But to measure how his broad suggestions of finding commonality with the Muslim world, practicing religious tolerance, and curbing extremism get translated into action represent as great a test for US diplomacy as President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. That’s how executive director Andrew Albertson of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy described the challenge of Thursday’s speech at Cairo University.
“I think that President Obama, by going to Cairo, by speaking directly to people, around the filters of state-controlled media, was the first step in his opening for resetting and recasting that relationship with the Muslim and Arab world. It was a pretty bold diplomatic move, something along the lines of Nixon going to China. That was the great strategic challenge for the US at that time, a country that we had very difficult relations with,” he recalled.
Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo enabled him to reach citizens by going around their governments and offering his audience a new beginning, provided the peoples of the Middle East are willing to work together to repair a history of what the president described as fear and mistrust. Albertson says the direct approach was a skillful act of good diplomacy.
“We have really good relationships with the governments in the Middle East, with maybe the exception of Syria. But we don’t have a really good relationship with the people of the region, and for too long, we’ve allowed ourselves to be wedged away from Muslims and Arabs. And I think this was a necessary and a very important, and a very prudent, well-thought-out strategic opening,” he maintained.
Albertson said that last week, the Obama administration’s budget request submitted to Congress for next year signaled large increases in programs supporting democracy and human rights activities across the Middle East.
“We saw steady or increased numbers in almost every country in the region – big increases for two major aid instruments, the Middle East Partner Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The only exception, and this is kind of an odd exception, given the President’s speech in Cairo, was a big cut for democracy activists and governing schools in Egypt,” he pointed out.
In laying the groundwork for a renewal of scholarships and exchange programs and people-to-people dialogues, Albertson said Mr. Obama had outlined the first steps that could be taken to build greater trust and understanding. While acknowledging that cultural differences and large political disagreements continue to exist, Albertson said “the president didn’t shy away from those differences,” and his willingness to talk openly about them could help bridge the gap of suspicion.
“I think when you’re honest, people respect that, even if they don’t necessarily like everything that the president might have said. And that lays a good groundwork for saying some other things. To those who have criticized him for, I guess, reaching out too far, to Muslims I would just point out the incredible strategic importance of making this kind of effort, and I think it’s ultimately going to pay dividends,” said Albertson.
As for the best way to calibrate how President Obama’s words Thursday in Cairo ultimately get translated into action, Albertson suggests that the high stakes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the president’s ability to win agreement on halting Israeli settlement expansion is one benchmark.
He also says that the increased US support for democracy activists, human rights, and governance-related goals in Middle Eastern countries will help indicate how successful Mr. Obama’s vision will turn out to be. This is true, particularly in Egypt, which Albertson argues is not currently being targeted by the president or his secretary of state for political reform.
“One of the real tests that the Obama administration has to grapple with right away, and it’s going to be a test of their seriousness on these goals that they laid out, is whether the US will continue to support democracy activists and reform goals in Egypt,” he observed.
Albertson says that next year’s US budget request for democracy activists and government reform goals in Egypt shows a decline of 60 percent. But he says he is hopeful that the president’s selection of Cairo as the venue for such an important speech this week will help set the tone for achieving meaningful progress and demonstrate Washington’s dedication to carrying out its intentions.