x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Barack Obama's long road from Cairo to Jakarta

A lot changed between the two key speeches – including the US president himself.

WASHINGTON // It may not have been explicitly billed as such, but there is little doubt that the speech Barack Obama, the US president, gave yesterday in Indonesia was meant as a follow-up to his speech addressing the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009.

Mr Obama's speech in Jakarta took place with a very different backdrop than the one in Cairo. In 2009, Mr Obama was riding a wave of global popularity, and a Cairo speech that promised a new beginning in US-Islamic relations served to strengthen his appeal in the Muslim world.

That appeal has since foundered on what is seen by many Muslims as a string of failures to live up to that promise. In a Pew Research Center poll in June, Muslim approval ratings of Mr Obama's performance had slipped to less than a third, down 10 percentage points from the previous year.

It was perhaps with this in mind that Mr Obama, who has childhood ties to Indonesia, made a point in Jakarta yesterday of emphasising that "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust", while reiterating word-for-word what he declared in Cairo and before that in Ankara - "America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam".

There were, of course, in Mr Obama's address the familiar themes and turns of phrase that won the admiration of so many.

"I believed then, and I believe today, that we do have a choice. We can choose to be defined by our differences, and give in to a future of suspicion and mistrust. Or we can choose to do the hard work of forging common ground, and commit ourselves to the steady pursuit of progress," he told an audience of about 6,500 people at the University of Indonesia.

Yet it was clearly a chastened - and more grey-haired - Mr Obama who stood at the podium, far more aware of the depth of the challenges he set forth in Egypt.

"I can promise you - no matter what setbacks may come, the United States is committed to human progress. That is who we are. That is what we have done. That is what we will do," Mr Obama said.

"We know well the issues that have caused tensions for many years - issues that I addressed in Cairo. In the 17 months that have passed we have made some progress, but much more work remains to be done."

Despite his carefully drawn caveats, Mr Obama's declarations in Jakarta are unlikely to have anywhere near the impact the Cairo speech had in the Muslim world, largely because of the perception that that speech failed to deliver any tangible change of policy.

"We always appreciate it when the president reaches out to Muslim communities," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations. "That's never been an issue. His rhetoric has always been positive. The key is to turn that positive rhetoric into positive policy."

Mr Hooper listed a number of issues on which he suggested the Obama administration had yet to deliver, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, to cases of racial profiling of air passengers.

"I think the speech was partly an admission that the high hopes that were raised in the region after Cairo have now been dampened by actual policies on the ground," he said.

Mr Obama made a point in his speech yesterday to highlight what he called "progress" on core commitments, noting the withdrawal of some troops from Iraq and the commitment to do the same in Afghanistan. But he acknowledged "setbacks" in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, where, he said, "enormous obstacles remain".

The lack of progress on that front has contributed the most to negative Muslim perceptions of the Obama administration. The June Pew poll found that, not just in the region but globally, the majority of respondents disagreed with the US approach to the peace process, an issue on which the administration received its worst marks.

With Israel announcing a new settlement tender for East Jerusalem just days before the Jakarta speech, earning the usual rejoinder from administration officials that such building was "not helpful", the issue will continue to be critical.

"We need to see real measures that put real pressure on Israel," said Mr Hooper. "An administration that brings justice and resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would have solved 80 per cent of all issues with the Islamic world. [But] so far we've seen only rhetoric. In fact, Israel has been offered gifts in return for a partial settlement construction freeze."

Nevertheless, said Mark Perry, an independent military and political analyst in Washington, the administration has made progress and Mr Obama was right to say this.

"A lot has been done simply by the administration being less confrontational," Mr Perry said. "I think leaders in the region understand this and have longer memories."

Mr Obama's Jakarta speech, suggested Mr Perry, was "recognition" on behalf of the US administration that more needed to have been done after Cairo. Still, he added, "the change of tone" out of Washington was significant.

However, Mr Hooper said he would have liked to see Mr Obama address "the alarming rise" in anti-Islamic sentiment in the US. "Here is actually an issue where rhetoric alone could make a difference."

 

okarmi@thenational.ae