Published for The Washington Post, September 17, 2012
During his campaign and the early part of his administration, Barack Obama offered a theory about the disorders of the greater Middle East. One explanation, he argued, was the intervention in Iraq, which “fans anti-American sentiment among Muslims, increases the pool of potential terrorist recruits.” Another was the failed Arab-Israeli peace process, which his administration would finally give some emphasis (as though other presidents had not really tried). Obama would refocus the war on terrorism more narrowly on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and dispense with the Bush Doctrine, which sought to “impose democracy with the barrel of a gun.”
The president’s June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo summarized this critique, while adding an element of soaring ambition. With American combat troops still on the ground, Obama dismissed Iraq as a “war of choice.” He catalogued various criticisms of U.S. policy during the Cold War and the Bush administration — if not an apology, then certainly an aggressive distancing. And he offered an antidote to anti-Americanism: himself. He had, after all, “known Islam on three continents” and had “heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk.”
It was to be a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect” — implying that insufficient American respect had been part of the problem. Obama’s persona would be the bridge between civilizations.