In his inaugural address on January 20, President Barack Obama said, "to the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect." But, without further defining " mutual respect", how can the President's remark be anything but words or a vague and indefinite platitude?
Early last December, the New York Times reported that President Obama wants to make "a major foreign policy speech from an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office." These signals to the Muslim world are positive. Yet, Obama faces enormous challenges in imbuing mutual respect into policy shifts, new ways of communicating, and conveying the values of this country's great people and constitution.
President Bush's "war on terror" consists of a long list of issues that damaged the image of the United States in Muslim countries over the past eight years; from his mismanagement of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to failed policies that benefited hardliners in Tehran and Washington's impotence in the Middle East peace process, particularly in the major conflicts of 2006 and 2009 between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Mutual respect is based on mutual understanding and it is imperative that the United States understands the dimension and scope of such damage. Meanwhile, the United Stats that Bush has left behind him is exactly what Robert Baer described to me in an interview recently: "The United States is like a big dinosaur with a very big tail that is going to do a lot of damage."
I recognize that President Obama's executive order to close Guantanamo, as a very positive and symbolically strong message of his intention to bring real change, has been designed to heal its image; that of a country in which torture is legal and innocent people can be imprisoned for years with no real charges, no access to legal procedures and absurd claims and bogus evidence. This image has been perpetuated millions of times in recent years in Muslim countries by their media and has formed a deep hatred against an insensitive, careless and immoral administration, from the streets of Jakarta to Universities in Cairo.
Because of last eight years of policies and acts of aggression Obama has huge hurdles to jump before he can get to establishing mutual respect and mutual understanding. You cannot just declare respect and move on, you must recognize how much damage your predecessor has done.
Closing Guantanamo could be supported by an apology for the harm and misery that thousands of people have gone through; people that hardly can come back to a normal life. President Obama has the capacity, courage, honesty and enormous support from the American people, to prove what happened in those prisons, or mistakes that harmed those people, is not a general pattern in the U.S. politics, but exceptions. He can prove that the United States respects the dignity of "others," regardless of their religion and geography and that the actions of a crazy terrorist group are not a reason for a collective brutal punishment.
President Obama's difficult job to build "mutual respect," starts now; that he should demonstrate what happened to those in detention, the extreme level of mismanagement of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the policies that have harmed the Iranian people and strengthened their radical leaders, the missiles that kill Pakistani children and its silence that permitted the death of hundreds of women and children in Gaza, and so on and so forth, are not a part of the American psyche.