Nine months ago President Barack Obama offered Muslims a “new beginning” with the United States in a speech in Cairo that was the centerpiece of his efforts to restore America’s image around the world.
Today, Kuwaiti public servant, Yacoub Hussein, 45, voices the disappointment felt by many Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, with the Obama administration’s perceived failure to make good on that promise.
“We were optimistic, but there were no results,” he said.
Obama aides are defensive about such criticism and point to scientific, educational and technological initiatives launched after the Cairo speech, a Muslim entrepreneurship summit scheduled for April, as well Obama’s determination to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
But the litmus test for many Muslims is progress on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which Obama tried to jumpstart last year. That effort went nowhere after Israel rebuffed his demand for a complete freeze on settlements.
“Maybe the speech raised expectations too high in terms of what a young administration could accomplish in year one on a very difficult, intractable problem,” said Stephen Grand, an expert on U.S.-Islamic relations in Washington.
The administration is now trying to launch indirect talks between the two sides, but this new effort was set back last week when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 homes in contested east Jerusalem, drawing unusually blunt condemnation from an infuriated Washington.
Fairly or unfairly, many Muslims perceive Obama as being soft on Israel while pressuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace talks.
“Muslims were expecting Obama to represent something new because of what he represents in American politics. They haven’t seen that. What they’ve really seen is a return to traditional diplomacy,” said Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
After being overshadowed by the nuclear standoff with Iran and the war in Afghanistan, Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is back in the spotlight as he prepares to head to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, next week.
MUSLIM WORLD SPEECH 2.0?
Obama will deliver a speech in Jakarta in which he will highlight Indonesia as both a Muslim-majority country and one of the world’s biggest democracies. He will also review progress since his Cairo speech, aides said.
The United States believes improved ties with the Muslim world bolsters its own national security, helps build alliances against Iran and erodes support for groups like al Qaeda.
In Jakarta, Obama should emphasize “there is nothing incompatible between Islam and democracy,” said Grand, who took part in Brookings’ U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha in February when Muslim delegates voiced frustration with U.S. policies in the Middle East. The highest-level U.S.