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April 29, 2009
In first 100 days, Obama changes tone toward Middle East

President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops during a visit to Camp Victory, Iraq.

Wednesday marks Barack Obama’s 100th day in office — a benchmark that has long been used to measure progress made by world leaders.

Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and writes at the “Informed Comment” blog to examine how the president has fared in the Middle East.

Obama’s First Hundred Days in the Greater Middle East

The hundred day benchmark for journalists sizing up a new administration is probably inappropriate on foreign affairs, which are complicated and move slowly. Still, we can assess the changes in approach and tone between the Obama administration and its predecessor this winter and spring, to try to get a sense of where things are going.

Obama has engaged in a number of acts of public diplomacy toward the Muslim world that were intended to change the image of the United States in the region and to marshal for his purposes American soft power, which is among its largest assets in the region. (Contrary to what the American Right used to confidently assert, the Muslim world does not hate “our way of life,” but rather loves the idea of democracy and loves US media. What they say they don’t like is a lot of sleeping around and tolerance of gays; in other words, Muslim public opinion is not so different from that of many Americans in the deep red states).

Obama did an interview with al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based Arabic satellite news station, soon after he got into office. He offered a hand of friendship to Muslims, insisted that you can’t stereotype 1.5 billion people with the actions of a few terrorists, and implied that al-Qaeda seemed to be running scared that it had lost George W. Bush as a recruiting tool.

Obama was making an important point. Radicalism in the Muslim world is very much wrought up with anti-imperialism, with a desire to push back against what local people see as an overbearing and arrogant American dictation to them of how to live their lives.

Obama’s public diplomacy extended to Iran, which he addressed on the occasion of the Persian New Year. He stressed the opportunity for Iran to re-enter the world community through diplomacy with the US.

[…]The big moment for public diplomacy, however, was Obama’s trip to Turkey. In 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, 56 percent of Turks had a favorable or very favorable view of the United States. By late in the Bush administration eight years later, that percentage stood at 9%. Bush was barely more popular in Turkey than was Bin Laden. But nearly 40 percent of Turks say that they have confidence in President Obama, making him the politician in Turkey with the very highest approval rating!

In an address to the Turkish parliament, Obama declared that the US is not and never will be at war with Islam the religion. (To be fair, Bush had said similar things when in Turkey, but his policies were so unpopular that it was difficult for him to be taken seriously on this point).

The Obama administration has succeeded in changing the tone of US diplomacy with the Greater Middle East. Note that a better job could have been done.

[…]Still, tone is easy, where there is a will. Substance is hard.

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