Commentary: President Obama speaks to the world’s Muslims |

Commentary: President Obama speaks to the world’s Muslims

Guy W. Farmer

President Barrack Obama was his own best public diplomacy practitioner when he spoke to the world’s Muslims from Cairo about 10 days ago. His next challenge is to translate his encouraging words into concrete actions and policies designed to improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations, especially those in the war-torn Middle East.

Although Obama’s speech was very well received at home and abroad, media reaction was decidedly mixed.

“President Obama began an ambitious recasting of politics and global perceptions – taking his case for a new beginning directly to the world’s people,” wrote Robert Marquand of the respected Christian Science Monitor. But the Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, questioned whether speeches are enough in “the tangled, treacherous tribal warfare of the Middle East.” My short answer: “No!”

Influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman downplayed the euphoric reactions of Middle Eastern analysts and officials and cautioned Iraqi leaders.

“It’s not what he (Obama) says,” Friedman wrote. “It’s what you do … . We must help but we can’t want democracy or peace more than you do.” He added that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should lead an effort “to resolve lingering disputes between (Shia, Sunni and Kurdish) factions” before the United States withdraws from Iraq by the end of 2011.

That’s a daunting challenge because without political reconciliation in Iraq, there’s no hope of final “victory” there, and all of our sacrifices – including the deaths of more than 4,000 young Americans – will have been in vain. It was ex-President George W. Bush’s war of choice but it’s President Obama’s war now, and he needs to implement a viable exit strategy.

“If a decent and stable political order can take hold in Iraq, it could have an extremely positive impact on the future of the Arab world and on America’s reputation,” Friedman wrote. “Ultimately, which way Iraq goes will depend on whether its elites decide to use their freedom to loot their country or to rebuild it.” It’s not our choice to make.

As for America’s reputation in the Muslim world, I’m always leery of political slogans like “new beginning” or “constructive engagement” because I remember President Kennedy’s overly ambitious Alliance for Progress, which promised that we would eliminate poverty and injustice in Latin America. In other words, we promised more than we could deliver, and have paid a heavy price for that.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton should choose their words carefully and avoid promising more than they can deliver. In the final analysis, Middle East peace depends much more on Iraqis, Palestinians and Israelis, among others, than it does on well-meaning but naïve Americans.

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.