Barack Obama’s vision for U.S.-Arab relations

June 5th, 2009

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Originally published in Politico.

Four days before the election of 2004, Osama bin Laden released a video message boasting of his role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Bin Laden’s message was a political bouquet for the Bush campaign, and it has been widely credited with helping Bush open an insurmountable lead over Sen. John Kerry as voters headed to the polls.

Bin Laden’s target was not just American audiences. Throughout the Bush years, Al Qaeda’s leadership served as a sort of Netflix for the Al Jazeera television network, sending in new tapes every few months to keep Islamic extremists whipped into a frenzy of anti-American animus.
Hours before President Barack Obama’s historic speech in Cairo on Thursday, which opened with “assalaamu alaykum,” a greeting of peace, bin Laden was at it again. This time he issued an audiotape taunting the new president and attempting to discredit him both at home and with Muslims worldwide. But this latest rant arrives in a world much different than that of four years ago.

First, in his attempt to weaken Obama at home, bin Laden has profoundly miscalculated the way that Americans now perceive the two political parties in the area of national security. For the past 40 years, Republicans attacked Democrats as “soft on defense and weak in responding to the threats of our enemies.” The research of Third Way, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, showed that these charges had real resonance, and Republicans used this line of attack relentlessly and effectively.

But over the past few years, a large number of Democrats, including then-Sen. Obama, promoted a new progressive approach on national security — one that was both tough and smart. That meant drawing down in Iraq so we could fight our enemies more effectively in Afghanistan; rebuilding and restoring the military; and re-engaging in hardheaded diplomacy with countries like Iran.

Now that relentlessness continues: Mitt Romney called the president’s trips abroad an “apology tour,” and former Vice President Dick Cheney has emerged in recent weeks to accuse Obama of making Americans less safe. But the effectiveness of those messages has been undone. According to new polling by Democracy Corps, strong and growing majorities support the president’s handling of national security and terrorism. The national security gap, which seemed as much a part of American life as the Pontiac, has also disappeared. Democrats now are statistically tied with Republicans on the question of which party is better on national security — a remarkable improvement of 29 points in six years.

Second, public opinion in the Middle East has been transformed by this new administration. Obama is four times more popular there than George W. Bush was by the end of his presidency. But what surely must rankle the folks in the Pakistani caves is that Obama’s popularity is, in some parts of the Arab world, higher than that of bin Laden himself.

There is little mystery as to why. Obama’s elegant, gracious speech in Cairo Thursday, quoting from the Quran and invoking his own family’s history with Islam, made it perfectly clear that he has set America on a dramatically new course.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he said. “One based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam … share common principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

For Arab listeners, the contrast with the bullish swagger of his despised predecessor could not have been starker, or more welcome. Moreover, Obama today distinctly contrasted traditional Islamic thought with the teachings of the terrorists. By citing the passage in the Quran condemning the murder of innocents — a line that won sustained applause — Obama put the U.S. squarely on the side of mainstream Muslims and against the twisted interpretation of Islam peddled by bin Laden and his followers.

In the waning days of the 2004 race, Kerry campaign advisers hoped the election would be decided by domestic issues because they feared — correctly — that despite Kerry’s enormous personal credibility on national security, the age-old security gap would push undecided voters into the arms of the Republicans. Now, just 4½ years later, a Democratic president has traveled to the heart of the Arab world in pursuit of real improvements in U.S.-Arab relations. The ranting by bin Laden and the attacks of domestic political rivals have made hardly a dent, a sign of just how fundamentally the political and global ground has shifted in the Age of Obama.