- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In his inaugural address, President Obama extended the warm hand of friendship to countries of the Middle East “willing to unclench” their fists and also implied criticism of past U.S. policies, a theme since repeated in an interview with an Arab language TV network. His message apparently was well received by the masses but interpreted by many of the region’s hard-nosed political leaders, and despots, as a sign of growing American weakness in the international arena.

In Cairo, Mr. Obama has an opportunity to launch a major diplomatic initiative to convince the Muslim world, allies and adversaries that America is ready to take the lead in creating a more positive and mutually rewarding political and economic relationship between the United States and the West and the greater Middle East while simultaneously cooperating together in curbing nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

This can only be achieved, however, if the widespread ideological support for terrorism found in much of the Muslim world can be transformed into condemnation.

Mr. Obama should take a cue from former Indonesian president and distinguished Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid. He should be forthright and challenge Middle East political and religious leaders to launch a concerted effort that unequivocally banishes the fanatical ideology of hatred that underlies the fundamentalist terrorism that threatens the very foundations of modern civilization and agree on a compelling alternate vision of Islam as a true religion of peace.

Until then, an extreme and perverse ideology in the minds of Islamic fanatics will continue to fuel their ultimate goal of establishing worldwide rule of their brand of authoritarian Islam, slaughtering all infidels who stand in the way as well as intimidating and subduing mainstream Muslims who do not share their extremist views. The vast majority of Muslims are not part of the terrorism but also do not stand up against it, thus joining in the complicity of silence.

Mr. Wahid has described the situation as a “crisis of misunderstanding of Islam by Muslims themselves [which] is compounded by the failure of governments, people of other faiths and the majority of well-intentioned Muslims to resist, isolate, and discredit this dangerous ideology. … Muslims themselves can and must propagate an understanding of the ‘right’ Islam and discredit extremist ideology.”

Implicit in his condemnation are such barbaric practices as indoctrinating and training suicide murderers, funding terrorist organizations and exporting hatred of America and the West via a network of Islamic schools worldwide that propagate Islamic extremism.

Mr. Obama should make it clear in his Cairo address that an enduring, productive new era in Middle East-Western relations can be created only when Muslims themselves turn against such extremist ideology and act to restore their civilization to its old glory as a multicultural zone of tolerance and of intellectual and scientific achievement.

But that will take time — and we cannot simply wait for it to develop. The United States can work jointly and in parallel to help form a coalition of countries from Europe, the Middle East and Asia to address and develop feasible solutions to such volatile issues as Palestine, Iran, nuclear proliferation (e.g. Syria) and terrorism and also to forging a framework for a new era of economic and trade relations.

This is an extremely ambitious and complex undertaking, comparable to the post-World War II era when American leaders reacted with a burst of creativity to resolve crises. Working across party lines, they created alliances such as NATO, launched the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine to rebuild war-torn regions, and established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to help rebuild economies.

We of the “Greatest Generation” remain proud of our country. We are confident that the world’s only diplomatic and military superpower, with strong and decisive leadership, still has the inner strength — and credibility — to achieve this noble cause.

L.R. Vasey, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, is founder of Pacific Forum CSIS, a foreign-policy research institute in Honolulu that is affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The views expressed are strictly his own.

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