Obama’s Fleeting Cairo Moment

In April 1980, a U.S. helicopter crashed into a transport plane in the Iranian desert, sealing the fate of a rescue mission ordered by President Jimmy Carter to save 53 American hostages in Tehran. The debacle that was Operation Eagle Claw also sealed Carter’s re-election chances because it demonstrated once again that he had allowed events to overtake his presidency. 

The killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of September 11 should provoke a similar examination of the Obama presidency. Here was a quintessential ambassador – an Arabic speaker, popular among ordinary Libyans, who had worked with the revolutionaries to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi – killed in the line of duty, inside the diplomatic mission along with three other Americans. It was a colossal failure, marking a nadir in a presidency that boasted a break with Bush-era unilateralism and a promise to “commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground” with the Muslim world. 

That sustained effort began five months into his presidency, in Cairo, on June 4, 2009: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” He was placing the Middle East and an outreach to the Muslim world at the centre of his foreign policy ambitions. 

Cairo was on his mind again this past week after the Egyptian government appeared less than keen to stop repeated attacks on the U.S. embassy there. A clearly frustrated President Obama said of Egypt on Thursday, "I don't think we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy.” It was a stunning public rebuke of a nation that has received $2 billion in aid annually ever since Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords in 1979 and ranks with Israel, Australia and Japan as a “major non-NATO ally.” 

As a venue for his first major address on America’s public diplomacy, Cairo was meant to be a leitmotif for a new overture to the Middle East, one designed to balm the Bush-era campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of that came to naught last week with the killing of Ambassador Stevens and the disapproval delivered by Obama himself to newly-elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. It took Morsi another 24 hours to realise that he had to be more forthcoming if he wanted the aid to continue. 

It is instructive to go back to that historic speech – historic because those words helped Obama win the Nobel Peace Prize the same year – to look at three specific touch points and see what progress has been made in US-Muslim relations. The first, “Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.” 

That assertion made not a whit of difference to the bloodthirsty killers of Ambassador Stevens. It has not persuaded the thousands of others in more than 20 countries that have rioted in Muslim nation capitals, railing against America. It would be worthwhile to ask how many more churches, synagogues and temples have been built in predominantly Muslim nations since June, 2009. 

The second bellwether: “Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld – whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.” In fact, nations like Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are less tolerant of religious minorities than before. Ironically, the removal of dictators has made life for these vulnerable populations even less hospitable. 

And, the third test: “The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.” Extremists and provocateurs are as welcome as they have ever been as is demonstrated by the ongoing violence targeted at American interests in capitals across the Muslim-Arab arc of nations in Asia and Africa stretching from Mauritania to Indonesia. The Arab Spring has seemingly made matters worse. The pretext: an amateurish, high school-calibre film that ridicules Prophet Mohammed. 

Of course, Obama’s declaration in Cairo to provide fresh impetus to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has gone nowhere amid mutual recriminations and stonewalling. He has been no more successful than his predecessor who was a much more vocal supporter of Israel. 

All of this points to a hard truth. Substantial sections of the Muslim world see America as Israel’s proxy – not the other way around – and can see nothing good ever coming out of Washington. Large swaths still cling to the notion that 9-11 was either self-inflicted or a Jewish plot. It’s not that they don’t understand the distinction between a private film-maker and the American government. They absolutely do, but almost any provocation is good enough to start a riot, take a few lives, and most importantly, burn the American flag. Burning of Korans, defecating on the Taliban, Abu Ghraib and the Danish cartoon controversy are all good enough reasons to spill blood and play spoiler. 

The conclusion is inescapable: Other than helping win a Nobel Peace Prize, Obama’s Cairo speech was just another demonstration of soaring rhetoric and relativistic parsing. As Robert Lieber, Georgetown University’s international affairs professor, told Konrad Yakabuski of Canada’s Globe and Mail, “The Obama administration had a view if only we showed the Arab and Muslim worlds that we cared, things would change… But public opinion shows that the United States is no more popular in large chunks of the Middle East than it was under George W. Bush.” 

If Bob Woodward’s latest chronicle The Price of Politics is an indictment of President Obama’s economic policy, the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the continuing anti-American tumult in the Middle East are a similar black mark on the foreign policy front. To paraphrase Woodward, Obama has not worked his will – neither in economic policy, nor in public diplomacy. 

George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator who worked as a reporter and editor in the Middle East for 10 years.