Barack Obama routs hardliners

Barack Obama must have said something right if Osama bin Laden, Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran and the Jewish settlers on the West Bank all lined up to denounce his speech to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Critics may point out that the US President did not announce any new peace initiative for the Middle East or distance himself adequately from the policies of his predecessor on Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is true. Mr Obama’s tour de force essentially reaffirmed his earlier policy commitments. He reasserted his plan to keep to a tight withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq by 2012. He said he would close the detention centre in Guantánamo Bay by next year and that America would never again torture terrorist suspects. He pledged to seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one.

His toughest message was reserved for Jewish settlers on the West Bank, whose communities he termed illegitimate. He added that Jerusalem, claimed by Israel as its capital, should be a home for Jews and Christians and Muslims.

What was really ground-breaking was not the content of his speech so much as the way he delivered it. After eight years of open conflict between the West and Islam, in which the dialogue was reduced to name-calling and accusations of terrorism, Mr Obama spoke with passion and eloquence about the need to heal the wounds.

No one in the Arab world can remember anything quite like it. An American president quoted from the Koran, recalled his own experiences of living in a Muslim country (Indonesia), and emphasised his family’s connections to Islam.

Above all he showed great humility, a respect for Islamic traditions and the Muslim world. He looked and sounded genuine. As did the spontaneous applause from the audience in Cairo, which was punctuated by the odd shout of "we love you".

This is bad news for the hardliners in the region who have relied on an inflexible US administration to maintain their influence.

Many young Arabs and Muslims watching Mr Obama will see a young leader offering hope of a better future that does not involve suicide bombings, threats against the West or outlandish conspiracies.

But as the US President acknowledged, this will be a long slog. If he wants to bring peace to the Middle East, to rebuild America’s relations with the Arab world and isolate the hardliners he will have to invest his Administration’s time and energy to this cause.

Other able US leaders and diplomats have tried and failed before him and their peace initiatives litter the modern history of the Middle East.

Mr Obama made an impressive start. Now the hard part begins.

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