Fulfilling the Promises of Cairo

Obama still hasn't turned his Cairo speech into a blueprint for action. Here's how he can take concrete steps to improve the United States' relationship with the Muslim world.

On June 4, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Cairo's distinguished Cairo University to deliver an historic address to the Muslim world.

According to a Pew Research Center public opinion poll released this summer, the euphoria that initially accompanied his speech has mostly dissipated in the region. There is a clear improvement in public opinion of the United States in certain influential Muslim countries, including Obama's former home, Indonesia, and confidence in the president himself is high. However, Obama's personal popularity has not translated into major improvement across the board in attitudes toward the United States.

Given that it may take much longer for the administration to offer up major foreign breakthroughs that will mitigate Muslim resentment against America, the White House should consider a policy of diplomatic, economic and social engagement to protect the president's down payment with the Muslim world.

The U.S. government must undertake major reforms to fulfill Obama's outreach to the 54 states comprising the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It would require a massive retooling of the U.S. government and a major reallocation of foreign assistance. On the diplomatic front, the United States should appoint a full-time observer to the OIC and the 22-member Arab League. In a noticeable failure for U.S. diplomacy throughout the Muslim world, there has never been a sustained U.S. diplomatic engagement with these two major organizations.

With full-time observers, U.S diplomats would accelerate dialogue and plan new engagement opportunities with Muslim states, coordinate trade and development initiatives, and more effectively communicate Muslim views back to Washington from the secretariats of each organization. Moreover, Muslim states consider the OIC and the Arab League important organizations that reflect Muslim viewpoints on crucial matters of interest to Washington, such as Middle East peace, interfaith dialogue, and intra-Muslim state relations.

Moreover, through greater involvement with the OIC, the United States could better utilize the OIC's Jerusalem Committee to consider the future status of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem in tandem with a re-energized Israeli-Palestinian negotiation track. The White House should consider approaching the OIC to convene a joint U.S.-OIC White House summit to explore ways to expand interfaith dialogue and means to empower Islamic moderates.

The president clearly intends to leverage his Cairo speech to expand U.S. trade and development ties to enable the Muslim world to compete more effectively in a globalizing world. This will require education programs, training, reform, and foreign investment. One important step would be the creation of a joint U.S.-OIC Task Force to develop a Muslim-American Entrepreneurial Development Private-Public Partnership Fund. The goal of this fund would be to help train a new generation of Muslim youth in vocational and entrepreneurial skills. So many Muslim universities educate young Muslims in the "conservative arts" and not in business and vocational skills. The fund's goals would be to initially develop entrepreneurial and vocational educational material in the languages of each Muslim nation and provide U.S. and local entrepreneurial advisors to identify new sources of business funding and vocational training opportunities.

Improving the economic climate in poorer Muslim countries will also require trade reforms to attract more foreign investment and development. Toward that objective, the U.S. Trade Representative's office should establish a Muslim world task force to expedite negotiation of U.S. trade and investment framework agreements (TIFAs) with those Muslim nations that so far have not done so (32 OIC members). TIFAs set the stage for bilateral strategic dialogue on trade and investment expansion and have been used to resolve impediments to foreign investment and facilitate the negotiation of bilateral and regional free trade agreements with Muslim countries such as Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain. These agreements have catalyzed increases in foreign investment, job creation, and market reforms.

In addition to trade and investment reforms, there are other developmental initiatives that the Obama administration may consider, including the establishment of a joint U.S.-Muslim World Health Program to focus on providing disease eradication support. Child malnutrition, childhood diseases, diabetes, and tobacco consumption, just to name a few, constitute major health challenges in many Muslim nations. Expanding U.S. medical training to Muslim doctors and introducing new online clinical training to local Muslim healthcare workers could advance healthcare in the Muslim world. When I was ambassador to Morocco, NATO shipped excess medical supplies to Morocco -- an important source of pediatric medical equipment for the country.

The Obama administration should also direct the Commerce Department to organize reciprocal trade missions from Muslim nations. These missions would bring Muslim business executives to the United States to meet with U.S. counterparts, helping to break down barriers, facilitate trade, and open prospective Muslim entrepreneurs to new business ideas. The Commerce Department should also establish a roving U.S.-Muslim Job Fair that will visit each Muslim nation to introduce Muslim youth to vocational and entrepreneurial education opportunities.

Finally, the Obama administration should consider creating a U.S.-Muslim Business Volunteer Corps composed of retired U.S. business executives to help train Muslim youth in business skills. Several decades ago, USAID enlisted retired U.S. business executives for such goals, and the program could be dusted off.

Effective U.S. public diplomacy programs in many Muslim countries are nonexistent or underfunded. New and imaginative private-public partnerships are needed to enable the State Department to support the president's goal of better engaging Muslim mass audiences by enlisting the support of the U.S. media industry more effectively and more consistently.

One such idea developed by Layalina Productions -- a Muslim world media technology and production company of which I am president -- would use Google Earth as a completely censor-proof Web portal that would enable Muslim and American youth to use blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to communicate. Designated MERKHET (an ancient Egyptian word for sextant), this technology would enable Iran's youth to communicate without Iranian government interference with Americans.

There are now over 450 private or semi-private media outlets in the Muslim world without adequate cross-cultural television programming to open Muslim minds. Expanding U.S. government support for private-sector media programming production for Muslim media outlets is vital if there is going to be any effective means for the White House to maintain an open line of communication with the Muslim world. A Council on Foreign Relations 2002 Task Force on Public Diplomacy recommended the creation of a new Corporation for Public Diplomacy to enlist the support of the U.S. media industry to begin supplying Muslim networks with new and innovative programs. So far, the State Department has done very little to retool itself to the challenge.

Additionally, Muslim journalists have inadequate access to their fellow U.S. journalists. Establishing a journalism exchange center in Abu Dhabi, linking American and Muslim journalists and bloggers, could facilitate better cross communication.  

In the final analysis, what ails the Muslim world cannot be cured simply by Obama's words or deeds. It's stagnant Muslim regimes and radical Muslim clerics who are failing their own people, not the U.S. president. But Obama's election and personal popularity have opened a small window of opportunity for the United States to divert Muslim hostility toward the real sources of their own ills. Hopefully, the administration will seize every opportunity to avail itself of that opening by beginning to realize some of the sky-high expectations Obama's speech produced throughout the Muslim world.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images


Europe to Europe: WTF?

How Europeans are responding to their comically obscure new EU overlords.

After eight years of protracted negotiations and a long session in Brussels last night, the 27 heads of state of the European Union announced they had finally chosen a foreign-policy czar and president for the 500-million-person economic juggernaut. The reviews are in, and they are far from kind.

Since the Czech Republic grumpily signed the Lisbon Treaty in October, the topic had become hotly debated in Europe and abroad, with papers and politicians handicapping the race. Would British Prime Minister Gordon Brown succeed in placing his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair, into the presidency -- beating out figures like Bertie Ahern? Might Carl Bildt, the respected Swedish foreign minister, take the foreign affairs job?

Not quite. In the end, the European leaders went with two virtual unknowns, at least outside of Brussels: Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy for president and Briton Catherine Ashton, a former leader of the House of Lords and current EU trade commissioner, for high representative for foreign policy.

Let's start with Van Rompuy. Germany and France reportedly backed "Haiku Herman" -- as he is known for his love of composing the Japanese poetic forms, though the British press has dubbed him "Rompuy-Pumpy" -- for the job, due to his bona fides as a Christian Democrat and a consensus-builder. Van Rompuy does not have a long list of European accomplishments: He has led Belgium for just a year, and became prime minister somewhat unexpectedly. But he has won plaudits for his wry humor and ability to please both his country's French and Flemish blocs, which are often at loggerheads.

Van Rompuy accepted the job by stating that he seeks to be "discreet" and that he will keep his personal thoughts "subordinate" to the wishes of the EU. But he has not met with such a considered and humble response. At least in the French and British press, he has been pilloried -- with papers calling him "charisma-starved," Euroskeptics declaring his selection a "stitch-up" (a conspiracy), and anonymous politicians and officials close to the 27-party negotiations expressing frank dismay with the choice.

And Ashton makes Van Rompuy look like Bill Clinton. By all available accounts -- the handful of them -- she is a respected Labour member, but by no means a household name in her own country. Thus far she has held a few domestic-policy posts, never won an election, and has been EU trade commissioner for just a year, during which time her greatest accomplishment has been the signing of a free-trade agreement with South Korea. She will now speak for Europe on issues like Afghanistan, manage a $10 billion aid budget and a staff of thousands, and replace Javier Solana, the current EU foreign-policy czar -- a charismatic politician with deep ties in Washington and the respect of the European political scene.

Ashton's appointment met with scalpels and cleavers from the press. Take, for instance, the sarcastic commentary of the right-leaning British Telegraph: "Bang go the reputations of Metternich and Talleyrand. European diplomacy has a dynamic new exponent and it is none other than Baroness Ashton of Upholland." (Ashton's is not a hereditary title, but an honorific given for government service when she became leader of the House of Lords.) Even Europhilic papers were unsparing.

Commenting on her appointment, Ashton appeared defensive, telling reporters, "I think for quite a few people, they would say I am the best for the job and I was chosen because I am." But her appointment means that big players like China and the United States will likely continue to privilege their bilateral relationships with individual countries and known entities like NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

It is difficult to argue that either Van Rompuy or Ashton were truly the most-qualified or best-prepared candidates for their respective jobs. By choosing such low-profile figures, Europe is essentially defining their responsibilities and expectations down. Van Rompuy had been mentioned before as a compromise option, but Ashton had not -- and the pick reportedly took her by surprise. After eight years of haggling and months of heated expectation, why would Europe pick such demonstrably low-profile figures?

One answer lies in the tension between the EU's diversity and its orientation towards consensus. Put simply, trying to please 27 different heads of state answering to 27 different constituencies on a continent with a panoply of political tendencies is difficult -- but a strong priority in Brussels. In his response to the appointment announcement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy noted that it was important the choice of leader made sure "no-one will feel excluded." Any forward-thinking or internationally renowned candidate (like Blair) was batted down by a partisan or disavowed interest to avoid Brussels' politicking long before the selection meeting.

Another answer -- one with more importance to the future of the European Union -- lies in the strongest European states: Britain, France, and Germany. Only Britain even sought to put its politicians into EU high office; France and Germany preferred to negotiate for powerful but lower-profile positions in the European Central Bank and European Commission. This eased the selection process and avoided the alienation of small states.

But it also revealed these countries' affection for the status quo. They already have strong bilateral relationships with countries like the United States and China, and seats at virtually every foreign-policy table of import. Were, say, a player like David Miliband to have taken the foreign-policy chair, or Jean-Claude Juncker the presidency, the big powers might sometimes have had to cede to Europe where they previously stood on their own. The choice of Ashton and Van Rompuy ensures those bilateral relationships will not be eroded or threatened or changed by the Lisbon Treaty. But it also ensures that, for now, the Lisbon Treaty will not accomplish its ostensible goal of giving the EU a louder voice on the international stage. In the end, perhaps that's what Europe really wanted.