June 04, 2009

Obama in Egypt

After the American Century

Later today President Obama will make a major address to the Arab and Muslim worlds. I will not try to second-guess the content of this speech, which has been long in preparation, and which has benefited from the advice of Arab American business leaders, foreign policy experts, and his own staff. But the importance of the gesture and the symbolism should not be lost in thinking about the content. The gesture is a clear declaration that the United States wants a new relationship with the Middle East, and that he regards Egypt as the central player in bringing about change. Only if Egypt can help broker a peace, is it likely to have staying power. Of almost equal importance are the Saudis, whom Obama visited first. The gesture also includes the fact that the address will be given at arguably the most important university in the region and in the largest city of the region, Cairo. Obama thus appeals directly to intellectuals and to young people, both of whom are important, even crucial, to making the United States more popular (or at least less unpopular).

This gesture might have had little possibility of success were the speaker to be George Bush or John McCain. But because the speaker is a generation younger, because his father's family is Muslim, and because he has committed his administration to closing the illegal jails in Cuba and ending the war in Iraq, there is a chance that the speech will mark a turning point. Only a chance, but a real one. That depends on what he says later today, and also on proximate events, mostly beyond his control.

One good sign: extremists have attacked the visit beforehand, including Israelis determined to stay on the West Bank, and Al Queda. He must be doing something right.