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GERTZ: Obama’s missed opportunity in Egypt

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS

The White House views the speech in Cairo by President Obama reaching out to Muslims as part of its aggressive effort to counter the lies of Muslim extremists while promoting American values around the world.

Specialists in international public diplomacy, however, said the president missed a chance to launch a much-needed program to more directly critique the roots of Muslim extremism and counter its ideology of hate with a war of ideas.

Denis McDonough, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said the Cairo speech June 4 built on Mr. Obama's August 2007 call for a new "comprehensive strategy" aimed at drying up terrorists' base of support.

The strategy is focused on countering terrorist "lies" about the United States, he said, and to "tell the real story about the country, our interests, about the way we carry out those interests and the way we'll defend the country against threats."

"It's not the opening salvo [in a war of ideas], it's the latest step in an aggressive effort to counter the lies that the extremists tell about the United States," Mr. McDonough said in an interview.

Asked about critics who say the speech was long on rhetoric and short on policy prescriptions, Mr. McDonough said the administration's ideological counterterrorism effort is being worked out and will include new policies at several government agencies. The soft-power emphasis also remains a high priority of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he said.

Mr. McDonough said the newly created National Security Council directorate for global engagement, while not an operational arm, will seek to "synchronize" U.S. government efforts to counter terrorist ideas.

James Glassman, who left government in January as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said the Obama speech fell short by failing to offer a new strategic direction.

Mr. Glassman said the problem is the president continued the ineffective line of reasoning that the best way to counter the false notion that the U.S. is out to destroy Islam is by promoting the "to know us is to love us" theme.

"That doesn't get you anywhere," Mr. Glassman said. "Nobody wants to listen to that. It's much better to develop a counternarrative that states that what this is all about is that there is a conflict going on in Muslim societies that deeply affects us, but [that it] is an intra-Muslim conflict. We need to say that even though it may not be politically correct."

Mr. Glassman said Mr. Obama's presence at the Cairo university was significant in itself because the president "is a great symbol of America at its best. But at some point they've got to take the next step."

The Obama speech was carefully worded to appeal to Muslim sympathies by noting current tensions between Muslims and the U.S. and seeking to bridge differences.

Mr. Obama used his middle name, Hussein, which was considered politically off-limits during last year's presidential campaign. And he stated incorrectly that there are 7 million Muslims in the United States when most estimates put the figure at 3 million or less.

The president also focused attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many in the State Department bureaucracy and U.S. foreign policy establishment regard as the key to solving the ideological problem.

However, other specialists note that al Qaeda's attacks on the United States and U.S. targets had little or nothing to do with the plight of Palestinians and is mainly focused on recreating a Muslim caliphate.

Mr. Glassman said the president should have focused on defeating the small group of violent reactionaries led by al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups that is trying to force more than 1 billion Muslims to adopt a sweeping, totalitarian doctrine that is not in line with the tenets of Islam.

Mr. Obama stated in the speech that "Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism - it is an important part of promoting peace."

Timothy Furnish, a specialist on Islamic history, said that while the president's statement that the United States is not at war with Islam is true, the problem is that "Islam is at war with us."

"For every passage the president cited from the Koran on Islam eschewing violence, I can cite two or three that promote violence," said Mr. Furnish, a former Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division.

The problem in countering the ideology of Muslim extremism is that a majority of Muslims accept a literal interpretation of Islam that permits or condones violence, including suicide bombings, Mr. Furnish said. Islamic writings even permit beheading of "infidels," he said.

"The percentage of people who take the Koran literally is very high," he said. "So it's not a huge step from taking it literally to supporting people who take action on that basis."

Mr. Furnish said the president was correct to focus on Islamic reform efforts, noting efforts in Turkey to promote moderate forms.

A good approach to countering Islamist ideology is for the United States to support the minority of Muslims who do not adhere to the literal - and violence-permitting - precepts of Islam, for example by working with Iranian Shi'ites who are not as violent as the majority Sunnis, Mr. Furnish said.

"I think the president started to touch on this in his speech," Mr. Furnish said.

Mr. Obama said Islam has a "proud tradition" of religious tolerance that he observed growing up in Indonesia where Christians worshipped freely in a Muslim-majority nation.

"This is the spirit we need today," Mr. Obama said.

"This is primarily an ideological war not an IED war," Mr. Furnish said.

On the difficulty of working with the minority of Muslims who oppose violence, Mr. Furnish noted that Martin Luther started his reform efforts with a small group that changed a major world religion. Islamic reformers can do the same.

Bill Gertz is a national security reporter and columnist with The Washington Times.