Medill Reports: Obama’s efforts in Middle East are working, ambassadors say

Has President Obama’s overture to the Muslim world made a difference in Middle Eastern attitudes toward the United States?

Five American ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries, traveling the U.S. in support of President Obama’s national export initiative, say yes, although much resentment remains and the results so far are difficult to measure.

“Obama does not have a magic wand … but he’s put much effort and focus into Middle East relations,” Gordon Gray, U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Wednesday. Gray said there is more work to be done.

Obama gave a widely viewed speech in Cairo in June 2009 in an effort to mend relations with Muslims and Middle Eastern countries that were frayed by the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world … one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition,” Obama said in the Cairo speech.

“He raised hope,” U.S. ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey told the Chicago Council. “The only down side is that their hope got in the way of what the realities are.”

While Obama’s rhetoric has been encouraging, Muslims want to see more done, Amina Sharif, communications coordinator of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Thursday.

“Words are nice but action would be better,” she said.

There has been too little progress on a resolution between Israel and Palestine and Muslims are concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sharif said.

The five ambassadors agreed that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the issue that looms largest over the region. The confrontation symbolizes the larger challenge facing Obama as he tries to remake the image of the United States. Middle East countries have large youth populations who are being bombarded with images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the criticisms leveled against the U.S. is that it had walked away from the conflict under the Bush administration and was not engaged in a finding a resolution, Gray said.

Joseph LeBaron, U.S. ambassador to Qatar, blamed the media for much of the skepticism about Obama’s speech. LeBaron said the media has not focused on successful programs begun as a result of the Cairo speech.

Obama’s speech was a statement of intent about improving U.S.-Middle East relations that allows the ambassadors to focus on other issues, LeBaron said.

“I’m positive that attitudes are shifting in a positive way,” he said.