He gave a great speech, banked some good pictures, notched up some favors with world leaders, and managed to keep the protocol nerds from going crazy. But what did President Obama really accomplish overseas? Here are five American goals and ten Ambinder grades - provisional, midterm grades, of course. As a humanist, my grading tends to get easier as the term progresses. I don't give many As.
1.Reorient America's relationship with the Muslim world. B+ There are at least three tracks here, and Obama rumbled along two of them: (a) - recognizing the validity of pan-Arabian / pan-Islamic identity (whatever incarnation it may take) and assuring this part of the world that America - Obama's America has no fundamental conflict with Arab nation-states. (b) signaling a break with Israel and recognizing Palestinian suffering in a major way. In some ways, the promotion of liberal humane values is at odds with the values of many Arab societies, and Obama couldn't really do more here than just claim that democracy and freedom could co-exist with Arab political culture. Inviting the Islamic Brotherhood to his speech was a nice touch, but they remain an illegal party in Egypt at the end of the day. Obama's speech isn't going to prevent Hosni Mubarak from ensuring that his son takes over the country. In some ways, Obama's decision to speak in Cairo sanctioned the validity of primogeniture.
2.Connect with young Muslims around the world. A - . This goal flows nicely from the the last; In Syria, Jordan and soon, in Egypt, Obama will interacting with Western-educated heads of state who are his generational contemporaries. And it this huge cohort (125 million or so) of restless younger Muslims - more exposed to secular values and Western culture - who wanted to hear the most about democracy, discrimination, education and freedom for women. And, of course, here is this guy with dark skin who was elected by America (still seen as a white country even though it isn't), who had no stake in the Iraq War, whose family has intimate ties to their religion - etc. It's something
3.Take anti-Americanism off the table. B. Anti-American is real, in the sense that it is a genuine response to American foreign policy or culture, and contrived, in that it is magnified and exploited by elites in order to shift the focus from dislocation or illiberality or economic distress at home. Whatever the admixture between real and contrived, it's out there, and something that Obama foreign policy advisers believe is a real obstacle to advancing even America's short term interests. Make fun of the President for basking the adulation of tens of thousands of French citizens all you want, but if the French government (or the German government) or the Egyptian government try to trot out the old anti-American tropes, they'll seem disconnected from reality. Now that anti-American is off the table, though, Obama's persuasive powers alone aren't going to be enough to convince Europe to share the burden of confronting or engaging with Iran, of sacrificing for the sake of the global economy, of the need to accept some of our Gitmo prisoners. The sweep of Obama's foreign travels since he became President suggests that tamping down anti-American sentiment was the principle reason he took these voyages. The next time he returns, he will have to bring something new - and something concrete, to these audiences.
4.Speaking truth to power: B-. The specter of a Christian President, black, with ties to Islam, forceful condemning Antisemitism to an Arab audience - the Goldbergian conjecture - was quite something to behold. But at the same time, Obama seem to endorse the political systems in Sunni countries. His criticism was dutiful and carefully worded, which is always a sign that he can't say everything he wants to say. Some have read in his speech an equivalence between the Holocaust and the suffering of the Palestinians. I didn't read it that way, but it strikes me that many in the Arab world might well have - and that the construction of this passage was deliberately vague in order to allow readers to hear different things. It occurred to me a few days after the speech that Obama said nothing - and hasn't said anything - about American attitudes toward Islam here in the United States even as he bragged about how well integrated American Muslims happen to be.
5.Sending enough of a message of Israel, thereby purchasing, at the expense of Israel, some momentum in favor of dual-track (hard line / soft touch) diplomacy with Iran. C+ We'll see. It's hard to conclude anything based on the comments of average Muslims to an AP reporter, in, say, Yemen, but if Obama did seed the idea in the Muslim world that America is willing (finally) to break with Israel, even if that break is on something as technical as the "natural growth" of settlements, he (arguably) advanced our national security interests. What's Obama going to do now? What's the follow-through?
Bonus! 6.The Rahm Question - Was Obama American enough? That is, was his speech American enough in its orientation (not too Citizen-Of-The-Worldy) that it tracked with domestic political expectations?. B+ The old refrain, at least to this blog: liberals like Obama because of what he does; moderates and independents like Obama because of what he says and how he says it. Cheering crowds in Europe; applause in Cairo; glamorous pictures of the American presidential family; a sense that an American gave an important, consequential speech... this adds staples to the suture line between Obama and the independents who are giving him his margin to govern right now.
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.