In defense of Obama's Muslim outreach

President Barack Obama's well-crafted speech in Jakarta yesterday serves as a useful reminder of some of the early promise of his outreach to the Muslim communities of the world. Praise for his efforts has been rare ever since the crashing disappointment which followed the sky-high expectations raised by his Cairo speech. The litany of complaints is now familiar: failure to deliver on the Israeli-Palestinian peace or on Gaza, little visible follow-through in the months after the speech, the inability to close Guantanamo, escalating drone strikes, the impact of rampaging anti-Islam trends in U.S. domestic politics, and so on. I've made all those criticisms myself, and more. With public opinion surveys showing collapsing approval ratings for the United States in the Arab world and rampant media criticism of Obama's strategy, it's hard to find anyone willing to defend the administration's post-Cairo outreach.

But today it's worth stepping back and offering some praise. The administration has stuck with the president's clear commitment to restoring positive relations with the Muslims of the world despite all the setbacks, when it would have been really easy to give up or change course. And he has quietly made some real progress in many lower profile areas upon which the media doesn't focus. The president made clear yesterday that he understands -- perhaps better than his critics -- that "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust." But, he went on: "I believed then, and I believe today, that we have a choice. We can choose to be defined by our differences, and give in to a future of suspicion and mistrust. Or we can choose to do the hard work of forging common ground." That quiet, long-term commitment may not be as exciting to the media as the peaks and valleys of high-stakes political battles, and isn't as revolutionary as the Cairo speech seemed to promise, but may ultimately be more important than today's headlines. If it works in terms of building robust and durable networks of interest with this rising generation of Muslims around the world, then we may wake up a decade from now extremely grateful for efforts which didn't seem noteworthy today.

Obama's goal in reaching out to the Muslim world has always had both short-term and long-term dimensions. In the immediate tactical arena, it was urgently important to neutralize the legacy of suspicion and anger left over from the Bush administration by taking advantage of the presidential transition, addressing high profile political grievances and changing the way America talked about Islam. Doing so was central to solidifying the administration's approach to countering violent extremism and isolating al-Qaeda, and for building support for American foreign policy priorities such as Israeli-Palestinian peace, responsibly withdrawing from Iraq, and dealing with the multifaceted Iranian challenge. Most of the criticism of his outreach efforts follows from disappointment with the outcome of those "high politics" promises -- above all, the failures on the Israeli-Palestinian front from the settlements to Gaza, and to a lesser but real extent the continuation of unpopular "war on terror" policies. I share those complaints -- the administration may complain that its failures on these fronts have not been from lack of trying, but in the end it's results which count and the targeted audiences have been very vocal in their dismay.

But there was always a second front to Obama's outreach to the Muslim communities of the world, one where there's more success than has been reported. The administration understood that the political openings created by Cairo and Obama's outreach would only have long-term ramifications if they could be translated into building strong partnerships and networks of common interest with Muslims around the world. They particularly targeted the large and rising youth populations, an investment in the future which had seemed terribly at risk during the post-9/11 "War on Terror" which so many Muslims perceived as American war against Islam. This long-term objective could never be isolated from the political turbulence around the high politics, of course. But without the longer-term investment, any gains from the high politics would only be fleeting.

It's therefore a quiet success that administration officials have plugged away at their quiet efforts focused on jobs, economic opportunity and entrepreneurship, education, science, medicine, and the like. Officials from the NSC and the State Department and many other agencies have worked hard to put meat on the bones of the Cairo "New Beginning", often with small programs which don't get much attention but which cumulatively could touch the lives and shape new relationships with a large number of people. The "Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship" brought together a significant number of diverse entrepreneurs from around the world, with an eye towards building sustainable networks among a potentially influential sector of these societies. There have been new science envoys, educational exchanges, medical programs, and internet outreach efforts all designed to build new areas for engagement and long-term partnerships. This isn't showy stuff, and it isn't revolutionary. It's the traditional stuff of public diplomacy, and it often doesn't get the credit it deserves.

It's also a quiet success that the Obama administration (like, as I always emphasize) the later Bush administration, has consistently declared that America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. It has maintained its commitment to Muslim outreach and engagement despite the barrage of criticism at home and abroad, and the seemingly meager results. It has done so from a position of much greater domestic political vulnerability than its predecessor, from the "Obama is a Muslim" canard to the cynical mainstreaming of radical anti-Islamic trends in the United States. He's rejected bad advice to go back on the ideological offensive or recommit to a "war of ideas" which would likely backfire and re-invigorate the dangerous narratives of the U.S. against Islam on which al-Qaeda so clearly depends. This consistent and earnest rhetoric deserves some credit, especially since it carries costs.

Don't get me wrong -- I haven't changed my mind about many of the criticisms I've made on this front over the last year and a half. There are many things I would have liked to have seen done differently, opportunities missed and mistakes made. I worry that whatever progress is made through these quiet efforts is too easily swept away by failures on the Israeli-Palestinian track, drone strikes, or the attention the media lavishes on anti-Islamic agitation. Over-promising and under-delivering is always a risk (a lesson which those demanding Obama take a stronger public stance on, say, democracy promotion in Egypt should keep in mind). But it's also worth stepping back on a day like today and recognizing some real, quiet accomplishments by the administration which don't often get noticed.

AFP/Getty images

Marc Lynch

The Zombie Tribunal for Lebanon

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is reportedly set to soon indict several top Hezbollah leaders for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The expected indictments have brought Lebanon to the brink of crisis, while the Obama administration has rushed to express its support for the STL and to deliver an additional $10 million to its investigation. Most of the commentary thus far has focused on the potential impact of its anticipated anti-Hezbollah ruling, whether it might lead to war or how it might affect Hezbollah's participation in the government. But lost in that admittedly quite important shuffle is a more basic question: Does the STL have any credibility at this point? If not, how does that lack of credibility shape the likely political fallout of its indictment? And should the Obama administration really be hitching its wagon to a Bush-era zombie which might drag Lebanon into an unnecessary crisis?

Unlike the remarkable number of journalists who seem to know everything about the Tribunal's innermost workings, I don't claim any special knowledge of the Tribunal's investigations. But anyone who has followed the investigation of Hariri's murder over the last five years will remember being flooded with leaks, analysis and evidence which supposedly established the culpability of the Syrian regime with absolute certainty. We all read books, articles, op-eds, blog posts and official reports placing Syria's responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt. And then suddenly "new information" -- which most people in the region understood to be conveniently discovered in a new political climate -- led the STL to stop pursuing the Syrians and shift to Hezbollah. The Arab media has not failed to notice.

What are we to make of its really quite shocking reversal? Why should we consider the evidence now pointing to Hezbollah credible given the seeming collapse of the supposedly iron-clad case against Syria? Most discussion of this fairly obvious point that I've seen in the Western media has been framed around Hezbollah's "efforts to discredit the STL." But the STL's credibility problems seem a bit more real than that. If Hezbollah were really responsible than a strong case could be made for pursuing justice regardless of the consequences. But from the outside, it really does look an awful lot like the STL is being used as a political weapon against Hezbollah at a time of mounting fears of its power and of allegedly rising Iranian influence in Lebanon.

These credibility problems should not take anyone by surprise as the crisis unfolds. If Hezbollah really is guilty, then a case can be made for the pursuit of justice regardless of the cost. But I don't think many people in the region are going to see it that way. I would expect the release of the STL's expected indictments to be received as a political gambit rather than a legal investigation, and to change few minds regardless of the evidence presented. Does it make sense to throw the Obama administration's support and prestige behind what looks like a zombie from a bygone era? Because like any good zombie, it may be only more dangerous as it relentlessly searches for new brains to devour.

(And by the way, I absolutely, 100 percent, certainly did not choose this metaphor just because of the alleged but unconfirmed Drezner-era editorial edict that all FP writers must include at least one zombie reference a week.)

AFP/Getty images