Expectations are high for President Obama’s second trip across the Atlantic when he attempts this week to befriend the Muslim world and pushes for a renewed Middle East peace effort, with many demanding he offer specifics for the troubled region.
Analysts and scholars characterize the visit as a major opportunity and say Mr. Obama must do more than use lofty rhetoric if he wants to restore some of the international good will lost during the Bush administration.
The showcase event of Mr. Obama’s five-day, four-country trip abroad will be a speech in Cairo, and the new president said he will offer a broad message about how the U.S. can build mutual understanding and improve its relationship with the Muslim world.
As he underlines common ground in an attempt to reverse dramatic U.S. unpopularity in Arab countries, Mr. Obama also issue a reminder about the U.S. role in World War II that once endeared America abroad, with a series of ceremonial events in France and Germany.
“The president is eager to change the conversation with our Muslim and Arab friends,” said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “It’s an important opportunity to advance the national interest.”
Polls suggest that no matter how uplifting the words, Mr. Obama faces a steep climb to win over Arab countries.
“He will face a nation hardened in its negative view of the U.S. and its role in the region, and unconvinced that this or any American president can or will change policy,” said James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
He cited a poll by Zogby International, led by his brother John Zogby, showing that “deep skepticism” of Mr. Obama remains in Egypt and Jordan, with 75 percent of Egyptians giving the president a negative job approval rating.
“Egypt was the right choice. … Given Egypt’s sheer size and the importance of its role in the region, if President Obama can’t sell his message there, it may not have its desired impact anywhere,” Mr. Zogby said.
The speech is part of a layered approach Mr. Obama has employed since his Jan. 20 inauguration, when he offered the pursuit of “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
His first television interview as president was to Al Arabiya; he recorded a message for the Iranian new year, known as Nowruz; and during his last trip abroad in April he told the Turkish Grand National Assembly that the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam.
“Our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people,” he said in Turkey.
Stephen Flanagan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said U.S. popularity rose from 10 percent or less among Turksto a range of 45 percent to 50 percent after Mr. Obama spoke in their country.
A March Ipsos poll of 7,000 residents in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan found Mr. Obama’s popularity as an individual far outpaces the view of the U.S. on the whole.
Only 33 percent of poll respondents have a favorable view of the United States, while 43 percent have an unfavorable view and the others are neutral or didn’t have an opinion. In contrast, Mr. Obama’s popularity ranged from 35 percent in Egypt to 58 percent in Jordan.
The Ipsos pollsters said the results suggest Mr. Obama has an opportunity to “bridge the gap” and use the good will he engenders to boost America’s standing in Arab countries. Still, some scholars pointed out the limits any U.S. president faces.
“The United States was not only unpopular among many Muslims; it was reviled,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at CSIS. “There’s nothing Barack Obama could say to Muslims on June 4 that will make the United States popular, and he shouldn’t try.”
Others think the speech will go a long way if Mr. Obama includes condemnations of human rights violations and calls for truly democratic elections in Egypt.
A group of Muslim scholars from the United States and abroad, along with leaders from other religious and U.S. groups from across the political spectrum, signed an open letter to Mr. Obama asking for “bold” action.
“What they need … is a commitment to encourage political reform not through wars, threats, or imposition, but through peaceful policies that reward governments that take active and measurable steps towards genuine democratic reforms,” they wrote.
They said the early outreach is of “no small significance” but “must be followed by concrete policy changes.”
The letter accuses former President George W. Bush of turning his back on Middle East democracy after promising the U.S. would not support tyrants.
“This is a huge opportunity and it’s not to be wasted,” said Mirette F. Mabrouk, visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “They want to see that America is going to regain its role as a diplomatic power as opposed to a bludgeoning power … [and] become a major diplomatic force in the region again.”
Mr. Obama has chosen to speak from Cairo University at an event jointly hosted with the historic Al-Azhar University. Cairo University was established in 1908; it has educated three Nobel Prize winners and deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Analysts said the location - a school known for serving Egypt’s working class - is a stark contrast to the American University in Cairo, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a major speech on democracy in June 2005. The university has traditionally been a school for Egyptian elites.
During the speech, one of her first trips in her role as chief diplomat, Miss Rice declared the new course was to support “the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Egyptians have been telling the press they expect an inspiring speech in line with the president’s style, as well as different from Miss Rice’s 20-minute talk where, according to press reports, attendees held applause until it was completed.
Obama aides said the president has invited a range of Egyptian political activists to be part of the audience and noted the attendees will reflect Egyptian society broadly. The president also will be “engaging” with journalists in Cairo, Mr. McDonough said.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo is responsible for distributing the more than 3,000 tickets to the speech.
In offering a brief preview of the speech last week, Mr. Obama said he wanted to emphasize the contributions of Muslim Americans to U.S. society.
Many are waiting to see whether Mr. Obama will offer support for Egyptian groups seeking democracy.
Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Mr. Obama has “raised the level of hope for real change” but that the president’s language must be backed up with policy plans and holding every nation to the same standards of justice and equality.
“Otherwise, we as a nation risk wasting the good will that has been garnered by your ongoing outreach to Muslims,” Mr. Awad said. “For too long, we have claimed to be champions of freedom and democracy, while turning a blind eye to repression, occupation and authoritarian rule.”
Mr. Obama will talk about broader Middle East peace efforts, which the president has said are too urgent to push down the line, even assuming he would be re-elected by saying it can’t wait until “my second term.”
But Muslims worldwide condemn U.S. support for Israel, the Jewish state’s occupation of the West Bank, and its recent Gaza war. Mr. Obama reaffirmed the U.S.-Israel alliance in bilateral meetings last month held at the White House.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars - one major factor for U.S. unpopularity in the Arab and Muslim worlds - nuclear nonproliferation, Iran, Pakistan and upcoming regional elections also are likely to be on his agenda for meetings with world leaders at each stop.
The images from this trip will be far different from the massive crowds Mr. Obama addressed in a series of town halls and large speeches during his last European visit. The Cairo speech - inside an auditorium - is the largest public address on the schedule.
After the speech in Cairo, he will visit eastern Germany and see the Buchenwald concentration camp that his great uncle helped to liberate. Mr. Obama also will mark with world leaders the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6.
The president will recognize U.S. veterans during a visit with wounded troops and also at the D-Day event, aides said.