Now that all the apologies for Americans freely electing George Bush twice are out of the way, perhaps the president will make this trip to Europe and his “outreach” to Muslims a little more meaningful than his last foray overseas.
Aside from some gratuitous slaps at his predecessor (and some rookie gaffes), I don’t think Obama performed all that badly over in Europe a couple of months ago. It was basically a “meet and greet” trip, heavy on media events and light on substance (except the speech in Turkey where, despite a couple of eyebrow raising passages, wasn’t bad and he said some things that needed to be said to the Muslim world).
But this trip will be different - especially the first leg which begins tomorrow in Saudi Arabia for some important discussions with King Abdullah and then it’s on to Cairo University for his much anticipated speech to the Muslim world. He will also take time to meet with President Mubarak as well as perhaps, some Egyptian dissidents although that part of the trip is still up in the air.
MIDDLE EAST LEG
Obama’s talks with Abdullah will be crucial to establishing a good rapport with an ally that is becoming more and more important as both a stand in for America in places like Lebanon and Jordan as well as a counterweight to Iran’s ambitions. The stop in Riyadh was a late addition to the schedule - a development that did not please Egypt who thinks that the Saudi stop takes some of the luster off their own hosting of Obama on Thursday.
The agenda for Obama’s Abdullah meeting will be quite full but I suspect one of the main reasons for adding this stop was the political situation in Lebanon. Parliamentary elections will take place next week and Abdullah has been doing yeoman’s work in working behind the scenes at our behest to strengthen the Sunni bloc and support the March 14th forces in their battle against the Hezbullah-backed opposition. Israel would take a very dim view of Hezbullah being formally installed as part of the country’s leadership coalition. (They already exercise de facto control of the country by dint of their militia and veto power in the cabinet.)
The probable outcome of the election will be that neither side receives a majority but that Hezbullah will have a chance to form a government if their bloc gets more votes than the democrats. No doubt Obama and the King will discuss eventualities if that occurs as well as the administration’s overtures to Iran and Syria. Some analysts believe that Obama’s trip to Riyadh also signals support for the King’s peace plan , something that Obama advisors have talked about in positive terms. But Israel has rejected it and it is unlikely to be revived at this point.
As I said, a full plate.
Obama will make his long awaited and much anticipated speech to the Muslim world on Thursday. The forum he has chosen is interesting: Cairo University is one of the oldest centers of learning in the world. It has also seen it’s share of student protests against the Egyptian government. It will be interesting to see if Obama plays the role of lecturer and takes Egypt (and the rest of the Arab world) to task for their miserable human rights records or whether he will appear as conciliator, bridging the gap between Muslims and the West.
During a briefing about the trip yesterday with press secretary Gibbs and Deputy NSA’s Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, we got a preview of what Obama will talk about:
I think what you can expect is a speech that really addresses the range of issues and interests and concerns that we have across this broad swath of the globe that is the Muslim world. And I think the fact is, is that the President himself experienced Islam on three continents before he was able to — or before he’s been able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world — you know, growing up in Indonesia, having a Muslim father — obviously Muslim Americans a key part of Illinois and Chicago.
And so it’s going to address a range of issues. You raised some: freedom and opportunity, prosperity. And I think it is fair to say that the President has focused an awful lot of time, as you suggest, focused on revitalizing this economy, which he inherited in such shape. But I think you’ll see his speech addresses the full range of issues and interests that we have on Thursday.
MR. GIBBS: Mark is going to add one point.
MR. LIPPERT: I would just add one other thing, in terms of context, as you’ve seen, is the President, he doesn’t hesitate to take on the tough issues in his speech, just harkening back to his Senate career when he delivered a very, very powerful message on corruption in Kenya; he continually raises these issues here with leaders when they come through both in private and through public statements, as well. So again, you have a President who’s not afraid to engage on very tough, tough issues.
How “tough” can Obama afford to be? Speaking truth to the world’s Muslims would seem to go against everything he has been saying since he was elected. Instead, he will probably be tougher on America and especially Israel than he will be on the tyrants in the Middle East or the despots elsewhere who use religion to keep their populations in line. And as far as taking Muslims to task for their silent assent for jihad, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for him to make mention of that little inconvenient fact.
Marc Lynch has some thoughts on how Obama has laid the groundwork for this speech by talking tough to Israel on the settlement issue, thus (hopefully) making his Muslim audience more receptive to his words:
Secretary of State Clinton, Middle East envoy Mitchell and others in the administration have reportedly been pounding home the importance of the settlements issue at every opportunity — both in private and in what I would consider a well-coordinated strategic communications campaign. General David Petraeus added his voice to the mix in a front page interview in the influential Saudi paper al-Hayat, saying that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would improve American security and weaken its adversaries. (Perhaps the imprimatur of Gen. Petraeus will sway some American skeptics as well?)
As Obama leaves for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, he will thus benefit from the headlines and op-eds in the Arab press featuring his strong stand on the settlements. His team has done an outstanding job setting the stage, establishing its credibility both with Israeli and Arab audiences and generating real momentum. It should help him get a receptive audience for the much-anticipated address, and allow him to point to deeds matching words (the most frequent Arab criticism of his outreach thus far).
I think this is too optimistic and raises expectations for the president’s diplomacy too high. But then, the pro-engagement lobby believes that a this is just the ticket to light a fire under the Israelis and restart the peace talks - especially after the Netanyahu government is seen as destroying US-Israel relations over the settlements issue and falls as a result. Presumably, the new government will have a different attitude toward the settlements and, voila! Progress is made.
Nobody will ever accuse the Obama administration of not aiming high.
This is the symbolic part of Obama’s trip and while his meetings with Merkel and Sarkozy especially will be important with regard to the world’s financial crisis (Gordon who?), the real fireworks will erupt when the president first visits the concentration camp Buchenwald and then meets Chancellor Merkel in, of all places, Dresden.
This is worse than Reagan going to Bitburg, the site of a cemetery where SS troops were buried. (Read the Wikpedia entry for an interesting take on the controversy.) Reagan used the occasion (or was forced into using it by dint of the ignorance of his staff who scheduled the stop not knowing of its notorious history) as an eloquent and emotional opportunity for reconciliation. It ended up being a positive for Reagan despite the controversy.
But Obama in Dresden opens up a trap door for the president that he will have a tough time avoiding.
The symbolic significance of a visit to Dresden by the American president — especially one undertaken in connection with a D-Day commemoration in France — may be missed by some Americans, but it is absolutely unmistakable for the German public. For Germans, Dresden is the symbol bar none of German suffering at the hands of the Allies. The city was heavily bombed by British and American air forces in February 1945, toward the end of the war. According to the most recent estimates of professional historians, anywhere from 18,000 to at most 25,000 persons died in the attacks. These numbers come from a historical commission established by the city of Dresden itself. But far higher numbers — ranging into the hundreds of thousands — have long circulated in Germany and beyond. The bombing of Dresden is commonly described as a “war crime” in German discussions.
Alleged crimes committed by the Allies against Germans and Germany have indeed become a sort of German literary obsession in recent years, with numerous books being devoted to the subject. The taste of the German public for the theme was made particularly clear by the enormous success of author Jörg Friedrich’s 2002 volume The Fire [Der Brand], which is about the Allied bombardment of Germany. The book’s success was so great that Friedrich and his publisher quickly followed up with a picture book on the same topic titled Scenes of the Fire: How the Bombing Looked.
It is virtually unthinkable that Obama could give a speech in Dresden and not allude to the bombing of the city. Most of the city’s historical monuments — which Obama’s advance team were apparently inspecting — were severely damaged or destroyed in the bombing and had to be rebuilt. Moreover, for Obama to visit both Dresden and Buchenwald would suggest precisely the sort of outrageous parallels that have become commonplace in Germany at least since the publication of Friedrich’s The Fire.
Will Obama apologize for the fire bombing of Dresden? And most problematic of all, will he try to draw moral parallels between Buchenwald and Dresden?
The Germans would like nothing better but I suspect the president will be extraordinarily careful in making any such comparisons. But hasn’t he already made those parallels plain by juxtaposing the visits in the first place? The president has invited comparisons by the very act of his visiting both sites and there is nothing he can do to change that. They barely mentioned Dresden at the press briefing:
…And secondly, why did the President choose Dresden particularly? Is it just because it’s close to Buchenwald? Is he trying to make some kind of implied point about German casualties, civilian casualties during the war? Or is it just purely a biographical thing?
MR. McDONOUGH: You obviously covered a range of issues and it underscore the importance of the trip. Obviously — and this underscores the reason I think the President is eager to change the conversation with our Muslim and Arab friends. We have a range of issues — you named several of them — Iran, proliferation, Afghanistan, Pakistan, obviously Israeli-Palestinian, have got key elections coming up throughout the region. So it’s an important time, it’s an important issue. I think the President believes it’s an important opportunity to advance the national interest.
As it relates to Dresden, I would just say that obviously the President has a lot of respect for the Chancellor. I think that he, from his early conversations with her, was struck by her time in the former East, and so I think he looks forward to an opportunity to see the major changes in the former East, but also to, as I said, harken back to certain undeniable truths and undeniable realities specifically as it relates to the Holocaust.
“Undeniable truths?” Stay tuned.
From Germany, its off to France for a non-controversial visit to the US cemetery at Coleville and a side trip to Caen. My own prediction - totally unrelated to anything - is that the press will be so bored by this point that they will invent a controversy between Madame Obama and Carla Bruni, Sarkozy’s drop dead gorgeous wife. It will sell zillions of papers and have people glued to their seats in front of cable news. Two female titans in a cat fight!
I am eager to hear the president’s speech on D-Day and compare it from an academic and historical point of view with Reagan’s famous Point du Hoc address. Hard to keep an open mind on this one but perhaps exploring both speeches thematically will tell us not only something about Obama but also, by comparing and contrasting the two set pieces, it should tell us something about the times we live in as well.
Finally, the president gave an interview to the BBC in which he set up a strawman and then proceeded to appear to embrace it - after blowing it away:
“The danger I think is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture,” Obama said in an interview with the BBC that aired Monday.
Obama’s opponents have criticized him for appearing to apologize for American policies and behavior while overseas. On Monday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — a possible Republican presidential contender in 2012 — scolded the president for his “tour of apology.”
While Obama seemed to suggest in his BBC interview that America has wrongly attempted to force its principles on other nations, he also argued that other nations should want to adopt those principles without coaxing.
“Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion — those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity,” he said.
This is pure doublespeak - appearing to take his predecessor to task for “imposing” concepts like democracy and the rule of law on Iraq while chiding other nations for not embracing those same values.
What’s the point? Perhaps we should have just imposed the usual thuggish dictatorship on the Iraqis. Would that have pleased him? This kind of dubious logic comes from possessing a naive outlook on the rest of the world. As other cultures and nations greedily assimilate as much of western culture that their rulers let them get away with, Obama seems to be saying that we’re wrong in promoting those values while at the same time urging other cultures to graft them on to their national identity.
A real head shaker.
Regardless, it will be interesting to watch the president as he tries to achieve some of the ambitious goals he has set for this trip.