It's been two months since President Barack Obama delivered his heralded address to the Muslim world in Cairo, promising a new era of respect and engagement. How's his opening to the Muslim world going so far?
Well, it seems, but with a couple of big question mark items, both beginning with the letter "I," one of them highlighted by the inauguration today in Tehran of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second four-year term in office.Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was inaugurated for a second four-year term today in Tehran.
The controversy and furor over Ahmadinejad's re-election, especially the Iranian regime's violent response to protests following the election, has stymied a key element of Obama's strategy of engagement. Not that we've ended up with different people in power there than we should have expected, nor people acting any differently than we should have expected them to act. More about that in a moment.
Obama's Cairo speech may have helped a pro-Western government take power in Lebanon and has certainly helped spark an upswing in positive opinion about America pretty much everywhere around the world except Israel. Which is the other big question mark item beginning with the letter "I."
The Cairo address also proved to be very well-received here in America, including with the Jewish community. In fact, Obama gets higher marks for foreign policy than for domestic policy in looking at his job approval as president, currently at a very healthy 56% in the Gallup Poll.
Beyond the overall impression of the Cairo address two months on, which is quite positive, and also relatively easy, let's look at some specific areas that are a lot more challenging.Iranian security forces cracked down on demonstrators after the disputed June 12th presidential election.
** Iran. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in for his second term as president today. The much hoped-for revolution against the radical conservative Islamist regime, touted in the wake of Ahmadinejad's disputed June 12th re-election landslide, has, not surprisingly, not materialized, as students and urban professionals make for a narrow political base.
But bitter infighting amongst the Islamic republic's ruling elite has materialized. It's not simply pragmatic conservatives against hardliners. It's also internecine fighting amongst the hardliners. Ahmaedinejad triggered some of it when he appointed his son's father-in-law as first vice president. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei had declared that Iran is friend to all the world's peoples, including Americans and Israelis, a statement which, needless to say, did not go down well with some radical hardliners.
So Ahmadinejad moved him from the vice presidency and made him the presidential chief of staff. Which has not exactly ameliorated bad feelings, though it did enable the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to continue his backing of Ahmadinejad.
The Obama Administration is giving Iran till the end of September to show some progress on engagement, including progress on ramping down its nuclear weapons program, which Tehran says doesn't exist even as it crows about how many centrifuges it has.
Ahmadinejad's appointment of his in-law looks like a positive sign. But the infighting may be too debilitating and distracting for Iran to get a credible negotiating posture together. Or it may simply serve as an excuse for delay.With far rightist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sidelined, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (a former Labor prime minister) has taken the point position in dealing with the Obama Administration.
** Israel. Issues with Israel are also very much about Iran, so that part first. Israel doesn't want Iran to have nuclear weapons, not surprising in that Iranian leaders have threatened to wipe out the Jewish state. The US agrees with Israel. Israel, with perhaps the most right-wing government in its history, wants to continue settlements by fundamentalist religionists in the West Bank. The US is strongly opposed, as it wants to move forward with a peace settlement establishing a state of Palestine.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who's been cultivated by Obama, said today that his country should accept the US peace plan for Israel and Palestine.
A string of high-level American envoys descended on Israel late last month. First was Middle East special envoy George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader. Then Defense Secretary Bob Gates, the former CIA director. Followed by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, the former Marine Corps commandant and NATO commander, and special advisor Dennis Ross, the former Mideast negotiator.
They dealt with the settlements issue and with continuing talk of a potential Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program. All of it shrouded in some mystery.
The director of Mossad said last month that Iran can't have a nuclear bomb until 2014, making calls for a prompt military strike against Iran's nuclear program sound somewhat hysterical. But Israeli sources say that Iran may be able to master the technology to the extent it can test a nuclear device in the next year, still a far cry from producing a deployable nuclear weapon. Iran says it's not developing a nuclear weapon. In any event, it's a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Israel's internal politics are also complicated. Defense Minister Barak, a former Labor prime minister who is perhaps the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, has taken the place of the foreign minister in Middle East peace talks involving the US. That's because Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a far right figure in Israeli politics, took the remarkable step a month ago of removing himself from the talks. Why? Because Lieberman is himself a West Bank settler.
I predicted that it would be a long time before we saw Lieberman in Washington, if in fact he ever comes. Lieberman is the head of a very far right Israeli party whose support was necessary for Bibi Netanyahu -- himself the head of the very conservative Likud -- to become prime minister. Lieberman demanded and got the foreign minister post. But it's an odd portfolio for him, as he and his party are widely regarded as anti-Arab, making it difficult for him to be much of a diplomat with the rest of the world.
** Syria. Late last month, the US lifted its embargo on infotech and aerospace shipments to Syria. The move is designed to further the Mideast peace process and to further isolate Iran in the region. The Obama Administration has been working Syria hard, dispatching not one but two envoys. Progress is being made, and Obama's speech was helpful in laying the groundwork, giving America a friendlier face.The Pakistani Army undertook a sweeping offensive against the Taliban.
** Pakistan. Obama's Cairo address was reportedly very well received in Pakistan. Which is fortunate, since Obama had prodded the government to push forward with a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban.
The offensive caused between two and three million internal refugees. But many have returned home and schools are re-opening. We won't know for awhile just how effective the move against the Taliban has been. It doesn't look like the Pakistani Army took down all the jihadists whose activities are focused outside of Pakistan. But Taliban encroachment against the authority of the central government, which had become alarming, has been pushed back.
** Afghanistan. The new US policies of scaling back air strikes that have caused civilian deaths and promoting negotiation with the Taliban are probably more important than Obama's speech. But it certainly didn't hurt, and the August 20th elections are moving forward.President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared together two weeks ago at the White House to say that the US withdrawal is on schedule.
** Iraq. The new face Obama has placed on America, symbolized by the Cairo address, has improved relations with Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Obama in the White House last month, embracing the American president in a way he never could have done with George W. Bush. American combat troops have been pulled back from the cities to bases, as scheduled.
In all, Obama's Cairo address looks, two months on, like a significant success. Of course, it's only a speech, and words can only do so much. But it looks like a strong beginning.