Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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Obama’s Balancing Act With the Muslim World

by Stewart M. Patrick
September 21, 2012

U.S. president Barack Obama delivers a speech in the Grand Hall of Cairo University June 4, 2009. Obama sought a "new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world (Goran Tomasevic/Courtesy Reuters).


Today interviewed me about the upcoming opening of the UN General Assembly. One particularly interesting question that Bernard Gwertzman, the CFR consulting editor, asked me, revolved around President Obama’s effort to balance his initial hope to improve relations with the Muslim World with the recent anti-American protests and Afghan “insider” attacks on U.S. coalition troops. It’s a difficult question. As I told Bernie:

President Obama began the early months of his administration with the major speech in Cairo in which he talked about turning a new leaf in U.S. relations with the Muslim world and the Arab world, in particular, and which would be focused on advancing social welfare and human rights in the region and being less tied to authoritarian regimes. In a sense, he was offering the Muslim world a new arrangement. At that point, of course, Barack Obama was extraordinarily popular throughout much of the world, and I think there was great hope within the Muslim world. And even in last year’s speech at the UN General Assembly, a big focus was on the great hope created by the Arab Spring and the trends that were occurring there. It’s obvious that things have gotten much more complicated, and the notion that one president, even a well-intentioned one, could somehow overcome several decades of legacy of support for authoritarian governments has been exposed as an illusion.

There are also tremendous religious and cultural differences between many parts of the Muslim world in terms of what is permissible to actually be said. So in terms of his international audience, he is going to have to again explain the nature of the United States and the nature of a liberal polity that can condemn certain activities as being hateful or inappropriate, but on the other hand, the price in the sense of liberty is allowing people to say reprehensible things, and the government has no recourse other than to do that.

Because this is taking place six or seven weeks before the presidential election, Obama will have to be on guard not to appear overly apologetic because that plays into the Romney campaign’s view and the view of some of his critics that he has shown weakness rather than strength, and that has, in effect, invited some of these attacks.

You can read the full interview on here.

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  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Unfortunately, US-Muslim world relations have been hijacked by people who consider their own side weak and under attack. Concessions are considered apologies or defeats. In this emotional atmosphere, any rational debate or give-or-take, which are necessary to resolve conflicts, are impossible. Its funny (but in its consequences tragic) how Romney campaign and Islamists define US and Islam is exactly similar ways i.e. ‘the last best hope of earth/mankind’.

    As democracy takes root in Muslim world, not only Obama, but every democratic leader has to do the balancing act. Obama started well (Cairo Speech) but then couldn’t implement many of his own initiatives due to domestic politics. Three issues, which were very important for Obama’s credibility in the Muslim world, were Israeli settlements, Afghanistan/Iraq wars and Guantanamo Bay prison. While ending of the Iraq was a success, other issues have now become fodder for the Muslim extremists. Arab Spring bought the two worlds together but recent events again showed cleavages. Its important that extremists on both sides should not be allowed to frame the debate and act of a few thousand people (such as making insulting movies/cartoons or resorting to violence) should not be taken as positions of the whole group.

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