Obama’s missed op­por­tu­nity in Egypt

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The White House views the speech in Cairo by Pres­i­dent Obama reach­ing out to Mus­lims as part of its ag­gres­sive ef­fort to counter the lies of Mus­lim ex­trem­ists while pro­mot­ing Amer­i­can val­ues around the world.

Spe­cial­ists in in­ter­na­tional pub­lic diplo­macy, how­ever, said the pres­i­dent missed a chance to launch a much-needed pro­gram to more di­rectly cri­tique the roots of Mus­lim ex­trem­ism and counter its ide­ol­ogy of hate with a war of ideas.

De­nis McDonough, White House deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser for strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said the Cairo speech June 4 built on Mr. Obama’s Au­gust 2007 call for a new “com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy” aimed at dry­ing up ter­ror­ists’ base of sup­port.

The strat­egy is fo­cused on coun­ter­ing ter­ror­ist “lies” about the United States, he said, and to “tell the real story about the coun­try, our in­ter­ests, about the way we carry out those in­ter­ests and the way we’ll de­fend the coun­try against threats.”

“It’s not the open­ing salvo [in a war of ideas], it’s the lat­est step in an ag­gres­sive ef­fort to counter the lies that the ex­trem­ists tell about the United States,” Mr. McDonough said in an in­ter­view.

Asked about crit­ics who say the speech was long on rhetoric and short on pol­icy pre­scrip­tions, Mr. McDonough said the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ide­o­log­i­cal coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­fort is be­ing worked out and will in­clude new poli­cies at sev­eral gov­ern­ment agen­cies. The soft-power em­pha­sis also re­mains a high pri­or­ity of De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates, he said. Mr. McDonough said the newly cre­ated Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil direc­torate for global en­gage­ment, while not an op­er­a­tional arm, will seek to “syn­chro­nize” U.S. gov­ern­ment ef­forts to counter ter­ror­ist ideas.

James Glass­man, who left gov­ern­ment in Jan­uary as un­der­sec­re­tary of state for pub­lic diplo­macy, said the Obama speech fell short by fail­ing to of­fer a new strate­gic di­rec­tion. Mr. Glass­man said the prob­lem is the pres­i­dent con­tin­ued the in­ef­fec­tive line of rea­son­ing that the best way to counter the false no­tion that the U.S. is out to de­stroy Is­lam is by pro­mot­ing the “to know us is to love us” theme.

“That doesn’t get you any­where,” Mr. Glass­man said. “No­body wants to lis­ten to that. It‘s much bet­ter to de­velop a coun­ternar­ra­tive that states that what this is all about is that there is a con­flict go­ing on in Mus­lim so­ci­eties that deeply af­fects us, but [that it] is an in­tra-Mus­lim con­flict. We need to say that even though it may not be po­lit­i­cally cor­rect.” Mr. Glass­man said Mr. Obama’s pres­ence at the Cairo uni­ver­sity was sig­nif­i­cant in it­self be­cause the pres­i­dent “is a great sym­bol of Amer­ica at its best. But at some point they’ve got to take the next step.”

The Obama speech was care­fully worded to ap­peal to Mus­lim sym­pa­thies by not­ing cur­rent ten­sions be­tween Mus­lims and the U.S. and seek­ing to bridge dif­fer­ences.

Mr. Obama used his mid­dle name, Hus­sein, which was con­sid­ered po­lit­i­cally off-lim­its dur­ing last year’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. And he stated in­cor­rectly that there are 7 mil­lion Mus­lims in the United States when most es­ti­mates put the fig­ure at 3 mil­lion or less.

The pres­i­dent also fo­cused at­ten­tion on the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict that many in the State Depart­ment bu­reau­cracy and U.S. for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment re­gard as the key to solv­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal prob­lem.

How­ever, other spe­cial­ists note that al Qaeda’s at­tacks on the United States and U.S. tar­gets had lit­tle or noth­ing to do with the plight of Pales­tini­ans and is mainly fo­cused on recre­at­ing a Mus­lim caliphate.

Mr. Glass­man said the pres­i­dent should have fo­cused on de­feat­ing the small group of vi­o­lent re­ac­tionar­ies led by al Qaeda, the Tal­iban and other groups that is try­ing to force more than 1 bil­lion Mus­lims to adopt a sweep­ing, to­tal­i­tar­ian doc­trine that is not in line with the tenets of Is­lam.

Mr. Obama stated in the speech that “Is­lam is not part of the prob­lem in com­bat­ing vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism — it is an im­por­tant part of pro­mot­ing peace.”

Ti­mothy Fur­nish, a spe­cial­ist on Is­lamic his­tory, said that while the pres­i­dent’s state­ment that the United States is not at war with Is­lam is true, the prob­lem is that “Is­lam is at war with us.”

“For ev­ery pas­sage the pres­i­dent cited from the Ko­ran on Is­lam es­chew­ing vi­o­lence, I can cite two or three that pro­mote vi­o­lence,” said Mr. Fur­nish, a for­mer Ara­bic lin­guist with the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion.

The prob­lem in coun­ter­ing the ide­ol­ogy of Mus­lim ex­trem­ism is that a ma­jor­ity of Mus­lims ac­cept a lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam that per­mits or con­dones vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing sui­cide bomb­ings, Mr. Fur­nish said. Is­lamic writ­ings even per­mit be­head­ing of “in­fi­dels,” he said.

“The per­cent­age of peo­ple who take the Ko­ran lit­er­ally is very high,” he said. “So it’s not a huge step from tak­ing it lit­er­ally to sup­port­ing peo­ple who take action on that ba­sis.”

Mr. Fur­nish said the presi- dent was cor­rect to fo­cus on Is­lamic re­form ef­forts, not­ing ef­forts in Turkey to pro­mote moderate forms.

A good ap­proach to coun­ter­ing Is­lamist ide­ol­ogy is for the United States to sup­port the mi­nor­ity of Mus­lims who do not ad­here to the lit­eral — and vi­o­lence-per­mit­ting — pre­cepts of Is­lam, for ex­am­ple by work­ing with Ira­nian Shi’ites who are not as vi­o­lent as the ma­jor­ity Sun­nis, Mr. Fur­nish said.

“I think the pres­i­dent started to touch on this in his speech,” Mr. Fur­nish said.

Mr. Obama said Is­lam has a “proud tra­di­tion” of re­li­gious tol­er­ance that he ob­served grow­ing up in In­done­sia where Chris­tians wor­shipped freely in a Mus­lim­ma­jor­ity na­tion.

“This is the spirit we need to­day,” Mr. Obama said.

“This is pri­mar­ily an ide­o­log­i­cal war not an IED war,” Mr. Fur­nish said.

On the dif­fi­culty of work­ing with the mi­nor­ity of Mus­lims who op­pose vi­o­lence, Mr. Fur­nish noted that Martin Luther started his re­form ef­forts with a small group that changed a ma­jor world re­li­gion. Is­lamic re­form­ers can do the same.

Bill Gertz is a na­tional se­cu­rity re­porter and colum­nist with The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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