THE BLOG
08/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama-Mania: An Opportunity but Also a Bottom Line

"How long will this excitement last?" Recent visits and meetings in the Gulf and Egypt reinforce the excitement, hopes, concerns and some cynicism engendered by President Obama's messages to the Muslim world, in particular his Cairo speech. The effects of Obama-mania can be seen at the Sultan Hassan Mosque where Obama's visit to the mosque transformed it into an Egyptian tourist site, often disrupting the quiet of Friday congregational (juma) prayers.

But the question raised is, "Even if he has knowledge and vision, can the new President deliver, given the power of Congress, increasing Republican opposition, the Israel Lobby and realities of Muslim world?" Will he have the political will, if required, to do what's right, whatever the political cost, or like most presidents and politicians, will he yield to the political realities and need to safeguard his career?

After only five months in office, Obama has been highly active in engaging leaders and groups around the world. However, while this raised expectations, much of our foreign policy, like our economic situation, remains in the shadow of the Bush administration's failed policies. A month after his Cairo speech, many in the Middle East and Muslim world are attempting to map out the composition, character and spirit of Obama's administration. A common question and concern is, "If Obama, personally, represents a very new and fresh chapter in American politics, why, then, do so many aspects of his administration smack of the Bush era?"

While Obama's vision and words are different from those of George W. Bush, it is still not clear to what extent, on the hot button issues, his policies will be all that different. An appointment like that of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East was a welcomed surprise, but thus far seems to be the exception. The absence of prominent Middle East and human rights experts and Muslim professionals and, at the same time, the number of former Clinton and Bush officials like Dennis Ross, Richard Holbrook, Christopher R. Hill and Farah Pandit raise disturbing questions about how "new" Obama's "New Way Forward" is really going to be. The high profile role of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who from the moment she ran for Senator from New York reversed many of her earlier positions... on Palestine and Israel... and whose political godfather in New York is Sen. Charles Schumer, a fine legislator on many matters but uncritical supporter of Israel, is also a matter of concern."

Many were prepared to understand and accept why, given domestic political realities, candidate Obama distanced himself from Muslims, seeing it as a pragmatic political necessity. However, five months into his presidency, Barack Obama has yet to make many significant appointments of Muslim professionals. Soon, Muslims and others will reasonably be asking: "If there are seven million Muslims in America, where are they represented in the government bureaucracy, in appointments as ambassadors, and advisory roles? Obama is challenged by the absence from the new administration of Muslim experts with a fresh perspective, especially since Muslims are among the best educated groups in America. Among the very few Muslims thus far appointed is Farah Pandit, the new U.S. Representative to Muslim Communities, who has been closely associated with the Bush administration as a member of the NSC and State Department, This raises the question "Aren't there other Muslim Americans who could provide fresh ideas?"

When have we seen Arabs and Palestinians in senior government positions? During Bill Clinton's second term, a preponderance of Jewish Americans occupied key Middle East positions, from Asst. Secretary of State and head of the NSC to many appointments in the State Department. However different, they were perceived, at the end of the day, as partial to Israel. Who are the experts in the National Security Council in positions of significance and in the State Department who represent not only new faces, but clearly new and alternative views?

Obama is especially challenged to pursue new avenues in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Aaron Miller, a prominent Middle East expert and member of the Clinton and Bush administrations, believes that the only way forward for Palestine and Israel is for the U.S., Israelis and the Palestinians to recognize that the old paradigm(s) failed and to realize that "a new paradigm" is needed.

Double standards? Part of the debate triggered by the Iran crisis, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, remains: if Obama was acting out of genuine concern for the killing of Iranians in Tehran why was he so silent during Israel's war on Gaza in which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed?

President-elect Obama's argument that there's "only one president" does not resonate well in the Middle East among those who point out that he did not hesitate to condemn the November Mumbai bombings, which many see as a classic case of America's double standards. "Realists" in the U.S. and also in the Middle East argue that Obama cannot, in light of American domestic political realities, be evenhanded on Palestine and Israel because it's political suicide. At the end of the day, will Obama do what few presidents or politicians are willing to do, respond to issues that are so important that he's going to lead on them, even if that's going to cost him votes and risk his re- election or that of his party?

Significant change in Palestine and Israel negotiations means that, in later stages, Obama will have to condemn not just Palestinian violence but also Israeli illegitimate violence and terrorizing. Obama must press for a settlement freeze now and broker an exchange: Palestinian recognition of Israel's existence and security, for Israel's acceptance of UNSC resolutions, a return to pre-1967 borders; this will ultimately mean the dismantling of settlements.

Iran: Some argue that Obama's popularity in the Arab world, following his statements on the Iranian elections last week, has been somewhat compromised. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hailed by some as a symbol of defiance for his anti-Israel rhetoric and for Iran's nuclear energy program. So why, they ask, when Ahmadinejad enjoys a considerable constituency at home, are U.S. and European governments so eager to contest the election results and support the opposition?

On the other hand, Obama has effectively distanced himself from what some in the Middle East see as the international community's obsession with Iran's election. Obama was more balanced in his approach than others like Germany's Angela Merkel, who was quick to criticize the Iranian regime before the massive street demonstrations and Iran's firing on and killing of its citizens. In contrast, Obama's language escalated as the situation in Iran escalated. He didn't duck but also engaged in a measured and balanced response. However, looking at the broader Middle East, it must also be recognized that much of what Iran has been criticized for occurs elsewhere with some Arab allies, but their actions haven't caused a comparable international uproar. For the U.S. to be credible, it has to be able to consistently say "We do not intervene in countries, but we feel free to limit the kind of aid we give to encourage strong civil societies and democratization, developed in a balanced way."

Despite the war of words between Washington and Tehran, Obama was quoted as saying he thinks dialogue with Iran is still possible. The test will be to see if the administration speaks with one voice; it is still not clear where Clinton and Ross stand on supporting diplomacy and dialogue with a current Iranian administration liable to make such efforts even more difficult.

Egypt: Now that Obama has spoken out regarding Iran, what will he do with allies like Egypt? Will US-Egyptian relations be tested? Will Obama openly criticize Egypt if people are arrested in future elections and there is the same violence and vote rigging that has occurred in the past? Some Egyptians are quick to ask, "Isn't Cairo too important for Obama, who has described President Hosni Mubarak as a force of stability?" Critics note that despite Obama's concern about representative government and human rights, in the weeks prior to his Cairo visit and speech his administration approved an increase of 25% in U.S. military aid to Egypt. They even agreed to Mubarak's stipulation that aid for NGOs be given with no strings attached, enabling the Egyptian government to choose recipients, and thus strengthening the government's ability to regulate non-government organizations! Unless Obama is more discriminating in dealing with authoritarian allies, America may continue to be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution on problems of government accountability, democratization, the rule of law and human rights.

Egyptians speculate whether Gamal Mubarak, the president's younger son and high ranking National Democratic Party official, is perceived in Washington as a possible successor to his father. Though the Bush administration spoke of democratization, they clearly tolerated a skillful use of democratic language (democratization, civil society) by states creating a façade with "government regulated NGOs" or "royal NGOs" while actually strengthening their autocratic control. Is Egypt and Libya preparing to follow the Syrian model for a new form of succession? Instead of military coups, power can now pass from father to son.

As rumors fly and many people think Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father, many wonder, "What does Washington think; where does the administration stand"? The Mubarak government and American neocons persistently warn of the dangers posed by the only successful electoral alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the Mubarak government's consistent repression and continued arbitrary arrests of Brotherhood members, (who are then regularly acquitted by Egypt's more independent courts), and despite government manipulation of laws governing professional associations and even cancellation of elections, the Brotherhood has remained non-violent. It remains a formidable presence and player in power politics.

"What should Egyptians be doing?" asked a prominent Egyptian journalist and publisher at a press conference in Cairo for the Arabic publication of one of my recent books, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think? (co-authored with Dalia Mogahed). At one level, I welcomed the opportunity to respond because the question reflects a deeper issue. "Good question, I said, but an equally important question is 'What do you think you should be doing?"

A common criticism of the Bush administration was that it operated unilaterally. Aware of this, Obama, spoke of the need for the US to work in partnership with others. Change in U.S.-Muslim relations and within the Muslim world itself can only come from a sense of shared responsibility. Recognizing the extent to which misguided Western policies have affected political and economic development does not distract from the need for leaders and citizens in the region to promote political, socioeconomic and religious reform. Outside powers can assist and facilitate but authoritarianism, repression, corruption, lack of transparency, and extremism that paralyze change can only be reversed from within a society. In many Muslim countries -- in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere -- citizens have grown up knowing only one president or ruling family. They have lived and struggle to survive or hope to thrive within the state's established parameters on freedom of thought and speech, assembly and action. The costs for public criticism, or calls for reform include imprisonment, torture, loss of jobs for the reformer as well as family members when the government is the chief employer.

The good news, as witnessed by Obama's reception globally and the response of vast majorities of Muslims, is that the president has been welcomed enthusiastically. This is counterbalanced by an awareness of the legacy he has inherited and has to turn around and the realization that success in dealing with the Middle East and broader Muslim world will be affected by diverse hurdles, a Congress many of whose members are uncritical supporters of Israel, a wounded Republican opposition bent on its resurrection through a concerted opposition to the president, and many Arab and Muslim governments, and the ranting and acts of terrorists.

Having raised the expectations of people globally, there's a new yard stick by which the Obama administration and America will be judged. If he doesn't deliver significantly, disillusionment and anti-Americanism will increase among the very people who were euphoric at his election but will then feel totally betrayed. Obama's failure will play into those who declare, "Well, he's just a new face with cosmetic changes but no real, significant improvement in American foreign policy.