On June 4, 2009, President Obama traveled to Cairo University, greeted Egyptians with "assalam aleikum," or peace be upon you, and charmed the Islamic world.
"Under the past administration, there was a feeling that the Islamic world was a group of terrorists, Islam was hated and Muslims should be watched..." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Reuters at the time. "But Obama came and said, 'We will not fight Muslims and Islam.' He is a sympathetic man..."
Obama chiseled away at the anti-American sentiment of the Arab world with his words. "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he said. He got it.
But now, 17 months later, the stagnant conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and domestic anti-Islamic sentiment -- in the form of the Cordoba community center and Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn a Quran this summer--have sullied Obama's clean slate. In 2008, six percent of Egyptians approved of U.S. leadership. After Obama's speech, the number rose to 37 percent. In April of 2010, it was 19 percent. Gallup polls show similar numbers in other Arabic countries.
"There's still a perception out there that the U.S. is still at war with the Muslim world," explains Steven Simon, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. We have deepened our commitment in Afghanistan, left Iraq unstable, and are increasingly confrontational toward Iran. Our diplomatic battle with Iran is widely seen among Muslims as "the U.S. picking another enemy in the Muslim world," Simon says.
Obama seems to be aware of his increasingly negative image in the Muslim world. Today in Jakarta, the president attempted to follow up on his Cairo speech and to reach out to the international Muslim community. While expressing his continued commitment to repair the "frayed" relationship between the United States and Muslims, Obama admitted that "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust," but that we could "choose to do the hard work of forging common ground and commit ourselves to the steady pursuit of progress."
He mentioned Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He emphasized that America is at war with extremists, not Islam. And, of course, he acknowledged the long road ahead.
"We know well the issues that have caused tensions for many years--issues that I addressed in Cairo," he said. "In the 17 months that have passed, we have made some progress, but much more work remains to be done."
Notably, his Cairo follow-up remarks represented a disproportionately small part of his message at the University of Indonesia. He didn't say anything new, or different. So why did the White House choose to characterize his entire speech as a follow-up? And why now?