From the 5th Annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum
Tamara Cofman Wittes, who's attending the annual 5th Annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum notices that anti-US rhetoric is way down this year. Instead of fire-breathing anti-American keynote speakers, "the opening keynote was instead delivered by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who argued that Muslims in Afghanistan and Bosnia were right to expect and accept American military intervention to relieve their suffering, and America was just in coming to their aid."
The reason for the change in tone has been a grudging respect for successes in American foreign policy and Washington's new focus on Iran.
Violence in Iraq is down, there’s new (if fragile) hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and pushy rhetoric from the White House, once directed at autocratic Arab allies, is now reserved for Iran, which Americans and Arabs both perceive as threatening. A cynical colleague of mine here argued that the positive tone from the regional leaders at the conference reflects age-old realities of international politics: when America is weak, he said, everyone loves to beat up on us—but when America is stronger, everyone wants to be on our side. That’s great—as long as the current lull in Iraqi violence lasts.
But the real buzz at the conference has been about the Face.
Quite honestly, though, I don’t think the relative love-fest at this year’s meeting is all ascribable either to regional shifts or to the conference organizers’ choice of speakers. The most powerful explanation for the change is evident in the overwhelming fact that all anyone at this conference really wants to talk about is Barack Obama.
A friend from the Gulf tells me her young relative was so excited about the Democratic candidate that he tried to donate money over the Internet, as he’d heard so many young Americans were doing. Then he found out he had to be a U.S. citizen to do so. Another young woman, visiting from next-door Saudi Arabia, said that all her friends in Riyadh are “for Obama.” The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia, certainly speaks to Muslims abroad.
There are two ironies here. The first is that while Barack Obama has gone out of his way to say that he is 'not a Muslim', in a wider sense the Muslims have taken him into their bosom. An acquaintance, writing from Jakarta says the same feeling is pretty strong over there too. While in America he projects the image of rallying America he simultaneously conveys the impression of being on the side of the Arab too.
The other irony of course is that the Arab attraction for Obama is potentially at odds with the Arab desire for a powerful America which can contain Iran. So far Obama has managed the remarkable feat of being all things to all men, even men who are mortally opposed to each other. What happens when he has to come down on one side or the other?