A year after President Obama largely defused a diplomatic showdown at the United Nations over Palestinian statehood, his difficulties with the Muslim world are multiplying rapidly as he prepares to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
Across the Middle East and beyond, protesters have stormed U.S. diplomatic posts, killing four Americans in Libya in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11 and clashing with security forces elsewhere in a wave of violence against the U.S. A Pakistani government minister issued a fatwa Sunday against the U.S. producer of an anti-Islam movie blamed by some for the worldwide outburst against America, and the leader of Egypt’s largest ultra-orthodox Islamist party called on Muslim leaders to demand that the U.N. criminalize contempt of religion.
In Syria, the slaughter of anti-government demonstrators continues despite the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts, as if the regime of Bashar Assad is mocking Mr. Obama’s creation last spring of an “atrocities prevention board” in Washington.
In Afghanistan, the number of “insider” killings of NATO forces by Afghan troops has increased so much that NATO has suspended most mutual training missions, cooperation that the Obama administration views as the key to turning over security of the country to the Afghans.
In Iran, work on a suspected nuclear weapons program continues as Israel grows increasingly agitated at what it perceives as Mr. Obama’s failure to take strong enough action against the Iranians.
The broader range of crises in the Arab world this year is especially uncomfortable to address for Mr. Obama, who has built his foreign policy approach to Muslim countries on a more-moral philosophy that emphasizes encouragement for pro-democracy movements and puts less focus on military solutions.
“The president faces a much more difficult challenge now,” said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow on national security and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s all well and good to promote human rights, and the United States should do that, but the reality is that it’s going to be a long, painful process. The president may have built up some unrealistic expectations with some of his statements.”
A spokesman for the president’s National Security Council said that as Mr. Obama prepares to deliver his speech to the United Nations, “the United States is in a stronger position than we were when he took office.”
“Any time the president goes to the U.N. General Assembly, he has an opportunity to set the agenda on the world stage as the leader of the world’s most powerful nation,” spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “He does so with the credibility of strengthening our alliances, ending the war in Iraq, devastating al Qaeda, and rallying international action on challenges like securing nuclear materials and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.”
This year, too, Mr. Obama needs to aim his message at U.S. voters in the midst of his re-election bid, with Republican rival Mitt Romney accusing him of apologizing to Islamic extremists and failing to stand strongly enough with Israel.
At the opening of last year’s U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Obama was facing the delicate problem of threatening to veto Palestinian statehood in the U.N. Security Council, an outcome that likely would have inflamed anti-U.S. tensions in the Middle East. In his speech, Mr. Obama said that the Palestinians must make peace with Israel before they gain statehood and that the U.N. must be an arbiter for Israelis and Palestinians.
Although there has been virtually no progress in the so-called “peace process,” analysts generally credit Mr. Obama with tamping down the furor over the Palestinians last year at the United Nations. There was also the U.S.-led NATO action in Libya that helped topple the regime of dictator Moammar Gadhafi without the loss of any U.S. troops.
“Last year, he was in a position to be able to tout the success of the basically blood-free intervention in Libya,” Mr. Patrick said. “There are a number of things [this year] that make the situation much less attractive for him.”
With protests of the U.S. roiling the Middle East, several analysts said they expect Mr. Obama will have to walk a fine line by defending a filmmaker’s right to free speech while rejecting the anti-Islam message of his film.
“Islamic leaders in the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and even Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have all announced a push to criminalize speech that offends Muslims,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It is essential that Obama remember his roots as a law lecturer and give an impassioned defense of the importance of free speech. Free speech — the basic right upon which centuries of progress has been based — is under unprecedented assault. It’s time for Obama to stand up and lead rather than merely react with platitudes and apologies.”
Mr. Rubin also said Mr. Obama should take a more clear-eyed view of the Arab Spring revolutions.
“What we now see is the Islamist extremists making their push,” he said. “We are witnessing the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Reign of Terror supplanting the French Revolution, or the Bolsheviks defeating the Mensheviks. One thing is clear: The Muslim Brotherhood has seen its shadow leading to six more decades of violence.”
Mr. Obama, borrowing a line from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has said in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that “we cannot replace the tyranny of a dictator with the tyranny of a mob.” Mr. Vietor said the president will “put forward a vision of U.S. leadership” in the Middle East.
“I would certainly expect the president to address the recent unrest in the Muslim world, and the broader context of the democratic transitions in the Arab World,” Mr. Vietor said. “The president will make it clear that we reject the views in this video, while also underscoring that violence is never acceptable — a message that has been echoed by the leaders he has personally reached out to in places like Libya, Egypt and Yemen. He will also send a clear message that the United States will never retreat from the world, will bring justice to those who harm Americans and will stand strongly for our democratic values abroad.”
Mr. Patrick said the president also may need to explain to the Muslim world why the United States doesn’t simply arrest the movie producer, Nakouly Basseley Nakoula, who was taken in for questioning by authorities in Los Angeles and then released.
“There are limited things that the United States can do in the age of global information when some ass in the United States can put together a crude video attacking the prophet,” Mr. Patrick said. “Then suddenly, it’s beamed all over the world and taken advantage of by extremist groups to mobilize major protests. It’s very hard to know what any president could do in that situation to try to tamp down things.”
Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the head of Egypt’s Salafist Nour Party, told Reuters in an interview that the U.N. should pass a resolution to criminalize contempt of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
“The voice of reason in the West will prevail if there is mutual respect, dialogue and efficient lobbying for this critical resolution,” he said.