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Obama still at the line of departure

Judging from the generally positive reactions to his Cairo address, President Barrack Obama appears to have made a new beginning with the Muslims of the world Ğ at least for the time being. He has before a global audience demonstrated successfully his commitment to a new relationship with the Muslims based on dialogue, mutual respect and partnership.

This is certainly "change" par excellence that is Obama’s assumed trademark. It is a major departure from the abrasive demeanor of the Bush administration. The change is significant, portending an America that can provide a better and more effective leadership in world affairs. This is the good news. There is, however, also cause to worry.

Obama’s Cairo address was, I repeat, fundamentally flawed as he premised himself on a tacit acceptance of the world’s division into "Muslims" and others. That is why he resorted heavily to religious quotes and themes. Yes, by doing so, he probably did succeed in stroking the religious sentiments of his audience and won many hearts Ğ even if only temporarily. In the end, however, he may have compounded existing religious divides. Historically, faith and belief have not always been elements promoting the resolution of differences among societies. He should have preferred a secular approach in his appeals to the Muslims. Now, are the Muslims more likely to reference his words about "women’s rights" or rather, his message about the "turban?" The religious backdrop of his address compelled him to be subdued in his emphases on democracy and women’s rights. It also resulted in an incoherent prescription when he spoke about religious freedom. If he persists in his notion of faith bringing communities together, he may be in for a disappointment. Obama must (and I am confident, does) realize that while he can use religious motifs as part of his script, in the world of diplomacy and exchanges in international politics, he has to employ earthly tools.

In terms of specifics, there was not much new in what Obama said. On Iraq and Afghanistan, he reiterated his well-known points. On Iran, he was firm, but forthcoming. The extraordinary admission of U.S. involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian Government (of Prime Minister Mosaddeq in 1953) was indeed one of the highlights of his address. Whether this will help Iranian-American rapprochement remains to be seen.

Obama devoted the longest section of his address to the Middle East process. He did not reveal a plan or announce a new initiative, but he provided concrete clues about his thinking on the Arab-Israeli conflict. His powerful and unequivocal evocation of America’s bonds with Israel probably was the harbinger of a more calibrated and demanding U.S. attitude toward Israel to make concessions needed for peace with the Arabs. His clear call (again) for a stop to Israeli settlements was important. His reiteration of the two-state solution and his reference to the Road Map reflected the essence and the method of his understanding of a final solution. By talking about the plight of Palestinian refugees as part of the problem, he met an important expectation of the Arabs. The mere fact that he referred to Hamas at all amounted to recognition of Hamas as part of the political landscape. Depicting Jerusalem as the home for "Jews and Christians and Muslims", in contradiction to his pro-Israel statements during his election campaign, Obama wisely threaded an open-ended line on this most sensitive issue. As he made demands of Israel, he also called on the Palestinians and the Arab states to do more for peace in the Middle East. He also made a pointed demand (of Israel) for improvements in the quality of the daily life of the Palestinian people. The Arabs have received Obama’s messages well. Even though the general mood in Israel is pensive, pro-peace elements there have also reacted favorably. In short, with his Cairo address, Obama may have gained some new ground in his chances for an Arab-Israeli settlement.

However, Obama is still at the departure line. Capitalizing on his wide support, he must act to deliver results. To succeed, Obama must in the mean time, leave matters of faith to the private domain and stop doing politics through religion. He cannot mix politics and religion in his country; he should refrain from doing so on the world stage. Unfortunately, Obama’s Cairo gains would remain tactical and may prove unessential if he fails to act on the different sources of tension he identified in his Cairo address. What we need from Obama is good and sound policies, not sermons.