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Obama’s Cairo speech

Obama is not a miracle worker. He is gifted, different and charismatic, but he is still only a political leader and a human being. He is trying to restore moral ground and improve the global standing of his country, but he cannot do it in a single stroke.

This caveat applies to his long-awaited address Thursday in Cairo, where he hopes to chart a new course for America’s relations with the Muslim world, especially the Arab states. He wants to repair the damage done to America’s image the last 10 years and establish friendlier ties with the Muslim countries based on dialogue and mutual respect. Can he succeed?

One thing is clear: Not even Obama stands any chance of turning the Islamic world around through a single speech. First, the very idea of addressing the world’s Muslims is itself problematic. No matter how well intentioned, it is divisive, premised as it is on the fact that the Muslims and the rest are separate and separated. Obama should have stayed outside the domain of religion and based his appeal and outreach on a secular axis. History is witness to the fact that religious differences are hard to overcome.

Second, the Muslim world, however one defines it, is diverse and seriously divided along political and sectarian lines. Regardless of Obama’s intended messages, different groups will still pick out parts of the speech that suit their purposes. There will be appreciation and praise. There will also be criticism, rejection and denunciation. Obama may therefore end up with a more divided Islamic world than the one he started with. Finally, he faces a hard choice between his idealism and pragmatism. Will he dare displease his Egyptian hosts and other autocratic regimes in the region with a robust emphasis on democracy, the rule of law, human rights and gender equality? The democratic and liberal forces in the Muslim and Arab world would be deeply disappointed if Obama fails to cultivate the need for political reform and progress.

The White House has already announced that Obama’s Cairo address will not be about a new U.S. initiative for the Middle East. But the President is likely to (should) talk about his vision for peace and security in the region. If he is less than blunt about his conception of peace between Israel and the Arabs and is equivocal about the future of the Palestinians, he will have wasted a historic opportunity. I believe the Arab world and Muslims in general will pay more attention to Obama’s messages regarding Israel than his words of goodwill toward Islam. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama has followed a different and better-calibrated line than his predecessors, particularly with his demand for Israel to stop all settlements. The change that Obama can bring is for the U.S. to put some real pressure on Israel to take those painful steps necessary for reaching a lasting peace in the region. The Arab world will probably measure the value of the Cairo speech by the follow-up President Obama gives to the Middle East peace process.

Obama is likely to be very careful as he navigates the sensitive Iranian issue in his Cairo speech. Given that the occasion is an outreach for reconciliation with the Islamic world, the president cannot portray Iran in a negative light. In the wake of the North Korean nuclear and missile developments and just before the presidential elections in Iran, Obama will nonetheless try to be firm with his expectations from Tehran.

The president has already admitted that his job in Cairo is not going to be easy. It is evident that Obama is not going to be able to please everyone. Yet he is to be commended for his efforts to institute relations with the Muslim world based less on passion and emotion and more on reason and universal values. Obama is a skillful orator and more. He has the unique ability to blend the matters of heart with the matters of the mind. I have expressed my reservations about the very notion of "addressing the Muslim world." I do not expect a miracle in Cairo. However, I wish President Obama well and very much hope that his Cairo speech serves to improve the global climate.