The Scouting Report Web Chat: President Obama and the Muslim World

In June 2009, President Obama gave a candid and powerful speech in Cairo in which he openly addressed traditionally divisive issues between the United States and Muslim-majority countries. Many believed that the Cairo speech could mark the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Muslim world relations, as President Obama appeared optimistic and hopeful in how the United States and Muslim countries could improve relations. Stephen Grand, Brookings fellow and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, noted last summer that “only time will tell if the United States can pursue policies in this part of the world that live up to its values while at the same time advancing its interests.”

Now, eight months after the Cairo speech, where do we stand? There are still a multitude of issues and conflicts the administration faces, including the nuclear standoff with Iran, tensions in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Wednesday, March 10, Stephen Grand participated in a live web chat about President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world. David Mark, senior editor at POLITICO, moderated the discussion.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:32 David Mark: Welcome, Stephen Grand, Brookings fellow and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. We’re happy to have you with us. Let’s get started.

12:32 [Comment From Shawn: ] President Obama’s speech in Cairo last year triggered optimism in relations between the US and Muslim countries. Has this feeling of optimism persisted?

12:34 Stephen R. Grand: The President’s Cairo speech was a brilliant one, in its symbolism and its substance. It stirred much guarded optimism in Muslim communities around the globe. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm has dimmed significantly in the months since. The primary reason, I think, is that for many Muslims the center point of the speech was the President’s promise to personally pursue a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, he has been able to show little progress to date on that front, though he was clear in the speech itself that the task was going to require “patience.’

12:34 [Comment From Danielle: ] In his Cairo speech, President Obama talked about “a new beginning with the Muslim world.” Is this possible and what exactly did he mean by that?

12:36 Stephen R. Grand: I think the President was trying to do three things in the Cairo speech: 1) to signal a change in the style of American foreign policy – from one that tended too often toward confrontation toward one based more on mutual respect and understanding; 2) to signal a change in the substance of American foreign policy, particularly on the conflicts that have often divided the US and “Muslim world”, like Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; 3) to move toward tangible partnerships with Muslim communities that address their developmental needs and advance shared interests.

12:40 Stephen R. Grand: I think he’s made a great deal of progress in the first area: the tone of the conversation between the United States and Muslim communities around the globe has changed for the better. He’s been hampered in the second by the prominence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the nuclear standoff with Iran, and the Administration’s inability to achieve tangible progress in either. It’s overshadowed the gradual American withdrawal in Iraq and the new approach in Afghanistan. The third — partnerships — take a long time to construct, but the Administration has made tangible, if not widely publicized, progress in this area.

12:41 David Mark: Are there different approaches to various regions with large Muslim populations? For instance, there seems to be minimal terror threats from the reasonably well-integrated Muslim population of India, as well as Indonesia, the country, with the largest Muslim population in the world. While in the Middle East terror threats would seem to play in more directly to the administration’s approach toward local Muslim populations.

12:44 Stephen R. Grand: I think it’s still a little early to tell. I think the Indonesia trip will be important in this regard. It gives the president an opportunity to show that the U.S. recognizes that the “Muslim world” is larger than just the Middle East and to showcase the rich diversity within Islam. it also presents an opportunity to highlight that Islam and democracy are by no means incompatible.

12:46 [Comment From Jay Nargundkar: ] How can the US best support moderates (reformers, pro-democracy activists, opponents of violence) in Muslim countries without delegitimizing them?

12:49 Stephen R. Grand: I think we need to recognize, as Obama did in the Cairo speech, that democracy needs to come from within. We as outsiders also cannot resolve the ongoing debates within Islam about how the faith resolves issues that have arisen in the face of modernity and globalization. What we can do is provide material support to indigenous citizen initiatives to advance rights and address development needs in their own communities.

12:50 [Comment From Sara: ] What is Iran’s end game? Are others in the region skeptical of Iran’s intentions?

12:52 Stephen R. Grand: I don’t think anyone outside the inner circle of the Iranian regime knows their true intentions — we can only guess. Clearly regime survival is an important imperative and they have demonstrated that they are willing to go to great lengths to maintain their hold on power. There are many states in the region that share our concern that Iran may use the nuclear card to change the balance of power in the region.

12:53 [Comment From John M.: ] You’ve written that Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is not enough — that we need multi-layered diplomacy. and personal and business partnerships as well. Do you think that’s happening?

12:56 Stephen R. Grand: I think the emphasis on partnerships in the Cairo speech was the right approach. We share with citizens in Muslim-majority states an interest in improving governance there. Partnerships designed to enhance human development, education, innovation, and economic competitiveness in the region help advance that objective and are good for both sides.

12:57 [Comment From Jennifer S.: ] Vice President Biden is in the Middle East right now, and there’s been a huge kerfuffle over the Israeli announcement of a plan to build more housing in a politically sensitive area. How’s this likely to play out in the region?

1:00 Stephen R. Grand: I think the Biden visit has been an important one. He has signaled a continued American commitment to Israel’s security. At the same time, he has roundly condemned the announcement of additional settlement activity in East Jerusalem. The agreement by the Palestinians and Israelis to engage in indirect talks, announced just prior to his visit, could be an important step forward.

1:01 [Comment From Noah Grabowitz: ] Is El Baradei’s challenge to Mubarak any more than wishful thinking and if he were, inshallah, to take power in Egypt?

1:05 Stephen R. Grand: El Baradei was met by quite a crowd on his arrival back to Cairo. Prior to his recent surgery, Mubarak had responded by stepping up his speeches in different parts of the country, which suggests he takes El Baradei’s potential candidacy seriously. We’ll see in the coming weeks how serious El Baradei is and whether he has the staying power to weather what will be a very harsh and very personal set of political attacks against him by the regime.

1:05 [Comment From Laurie: ] How is the crackdown on the Taliban in Pakistan being viewed by the Muslim world?

1:08 Stephen R. Grand: Few Muslims seem to want to live under a theocracy as harsh as what the Afghani Taliban inflicted on Afghanistan. What is interesting in Pakistan is that Pakistani society has really turned decisively against Taliban elements in their own country. That’s been a prod to the government and the military to do more to counter their influence.

1:09 [Comment From Joe Guggenheim: ] Do you have any facts to support or rebut the contention that our continued military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan under Pres. Obama have resulted in more terrorists/militants who are active in attacking the U.S. and U.S. citizens abroad than we are eliminating by our diplomacy and these military activities? What are the policy implications of your conclusions on this issue?

1:12 Stephen R. Grand: That’s a very difficult question to answer empirically. On the one hand, we know that Muslims are generally the principal victims of extremist violence and most have little interest in rule by the Taliban or Al Qaida. On the other hand, we know that every time an American drone or soldier kills an innocent civilian, it sparks outrage against us. The new McChrystal strategy of protecting civilian populations seems to recognize this.

1:14 David Mark: With elections in Iraq pointing to at least some level of stability in that nation how do you think U.S. involvement there will ultimately be seen in the Muslim world?

1:17 Stephen R. Grand: I think the jury is still out as to how history and the region will judge America’s intervention in Iraq. A lot depends upon what Iraqis are able to do themselves after America’s withdrawal. Today the view on the street in the “Muslim word” focuses much more on the instability and insecurity that the invasion brought to the region than on the nascent democratic process there.

1:17 David Mark: With Iran making increasing bellicose statements – even recently questioning the origins of the 9/11 attacks – is there reason to think an emerging Sunni-led anti-Iran coalition is emerging? How might this affect the Obama Administration’s broader outreach efforts to the Muslim world?

1:22 Stephen R. Grand: Increasing Iranian influence — an unanticipated consequence of the Iraq war — is definitely leading other states in the region to come together and to try to find ways to balance Iran. How we and the Israelis choose to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat will affect how durable that convergence of interests may be.

1:22 [Comment From Kenneth: ] It seems like we have a lot of sticks in play with Middle Eastern countries: drones, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What are the carrots? What else are we doing to make friends?

1:26 Stephen R. Grand: We do tend to use our sticks and forget about the possible carrots we hold. Partnerships around mutual interests is one important carrot we could employ more effectively. Beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan is the bread-and-butter question faced by many citizens of Muslim-majority countries of how do I feed my family, how do I send my kids to good schools, how do they find them employment. We can help on these issues and it’s in our interest to do so.

1:27 [Comment From Rossalina Madjirova: ] To what extent the US relations with Turkey are determined in the context of the Muslim outreach efforts of the administration? how would the US -Turkey bilateral relations be affected by the genocide resolution adopted by the House Foreign Relations Committee last week; do you think the resolution would reach House floor and would Speaker Pelosi support that move now that it is a Democratic administration which opposes the resolution, and not a Republican one as in 2007?

1:31 Stephen R. Grand: Many Turks do not think of their primary identity as Muslim and we make a mistake when we try to pigeon-hole anyone into a single identity, particularly a religious one. Nonetheless, Turkey is a pivotal country, at the crossroads between East and West. If events develop the way we want them to in Turkey, we can demonstrate that neither Islam and the West nor Islam and democracy are incompatible. With regard to the Armenian genocide, Turkey needs to come to a full reckoning with its past, but the U.S. Congress may not be the best vehicle for this to happen.

1:31 David Mark: We’re out of time. Thanks for joining us today.