Repositioning America: Obama's Cairo Speech as the Ultimate in Event Marketing

President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim world today at Cairo University in Egypt.

In the biggest example of event marketing that comes to mind, President Barack Obama used his ballyhooed speech today at Cairo University to reposition America in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

"I have come here," he said, "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

The fact is that Obama didn't really say anything new. The positions he laid out are positions he had in his campaign. But he did say it all at once, and quite well. He did say it in a 50-minute address aimed directly at the Muslim and Arab worlds. He did say it in Cairo, largest city in the Arab world and a critical city in the history of Islam. And he did say it at the leading modern university in Egypt in an event co-sponsored by the world's chief center of Arabic literature, the ancient Al-Azhar University.

In that sense, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. The context is the key to the effort.

In an even larger sense, the message is himself. Both who he is, and who he is not.

Obama received a lavish welcome yesterday from King Abdullah at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Who he is not, of course, is George W. Bush.

Bush, along with his mentor Dick Cheney, was a perfect foil for the enemies of America. Largely unreflective and not very articulate, he insisted on unilateralism at a time, after 9/11, in which most of the world was on America's side. Not surprisingly, the friends of America largely fell away. Although he denied it, Bush often seemed an enemy of Islam, though not of the oil some of the Islamic world's rulers could provide.

The dangerously irrational neoconservative notion of a "clash of civilizations," taken from the Samuel Huntington book of the same name, coursed close to the surface of the Bush/Cheney Administration's worldview. That America can't afford to make an entire religion its enemy should be obvious. But evidently not so obvious that Obama didn't have to declare in his speech two months ago to the Turkish parliament in Ankara: "The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam."

So Obama is not George W. Bush. Who he is, is Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama spent four hours yesterday conferring in a mostly private summit with King Abdullah, who presented him with Saudi Arabia's highest award. Al Qaeda labored mightily to argue that Obama is an enemy of Islam.

Obama embodies the message that America is not the caricature that Bush and Cheney allowed it to become in the Muslim world. This is why Al Qaeda so feverishly attacked him in the days before the Cairo speech, with operational chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, a native Egyptian who is the longtime operational chief of Al Qaeda, warning Obama in a recorded message on Tuesday that he is not welcome in Egypt. Ironically, it's the good doctor himself, who fled Egypt long ago, who is not welcome in Egypt. The Al Qaeda leader declared that Obama is a "criminal" whose "polished words" can't conceal his "bloody messages."

On Wednesday, it was Osama bin Laden himself, issuing an audio tape referencing the current Pakistani Army offensive against the Taliban, shortly after Obama landed in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's homeland where he, too, is no longer welcome.

Osama claimed that Obama is every bit as oppressive to Muslims and Arabs as was Bush, a figure who became anathema to most of the Islamic world. "Obama," claimed bin Laden, "has planted the seeds for hatred and revenge against America. ... Americans must prepare for the consequences."

The fact is that the very existence of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States is a fundamental rebuke to the extremist ideological line about America that has been pushed for years by Al Qaeda and other jihadist outfits. Al Qaeda has seemed hysterical at times in the past in trying to come to grips with the Obama phenomenon, and that hysteria is manifesting itself again.

That the son of a Kenyan Muslim, raised in part in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, with a distinctly foreign-sound name, could become the first non-white American president in an election that was not even close means that America is not the place the jihadists say it is.

The setting of the speech was key to the marketing effort as well.

In an interview with the BBC prior to his trip, Obama said that "misapprehensions" are the cause of much fundamental unease between Islam and the West.

Cairo is the largest city in the Arab world, with an amazing history. And in appearing at its distinctly modern university, co-sponsored by a famed Islamic university more than a thousand years old, Obama cast himself as a modernizer who respects tradition in his effort to capture the imagination of the young, who make up most of the Muslim world.

As for the issues, they are familiar from the Obama campaign.

** Obama expressed sharp opposition to "violent extremism," an interesting term that bespeaks tolerance for religious extremism so long as it's not manifested in violence. But which also means war against the Al Qaeda forces responsible for 9/11 and other jihadists who attack America.

** Obama drew the distinction between the war in Afghanistan as a war of necessity and the war in Iraq as a war of choice, which Obama opposed from the start and from which he is withdrawing American forces on much the timetable he outlined in the campaign. (That Bush was forced in the end to change his policy, in part because of Obama's campaign, does not make Obama's policy any less of a departure from the plans of Bush and Cheney.)

** Obama reminded that he has ended the policy of torture in interrogations and is closing the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison. He didn't mention that the latter is one of his few unpopular policies in America.

** Obama expressed both his support for a Palestinian state and opposition to more Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Obama made clear that Palestine should be its own nation, while also making it clear that he believes Israel, born of centuries of anti-Jewish discrimination culminating in the unthinkable Holocaust, must exist as well. And that, nonetheless, he is firm in his opposition to the settlement policy of the new Israeli government, perhaps the most right-wing in the nation's history.

Obama's speech was much anticipated in Egypt, as this Al Jazeera report makes clear.

There may be confrontation looming on the settlement issue. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu announced that he will not honor Obama's request to halt further Israeli settlement in the West Bank. On Wednesday, Israel's interior minister said that, if anything, settlement in the West Bank may accelerate.

** Obama declared his support for Iranian nuclear power and opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons. Egypt, incidentally, invited Iran's ambassador to attend Obama's speech, with obvious US approval. I don't know if he did attend. Not surprisingly, Arab leaders are distinctly unhappy about the possibility of Iran with nuclear weapons.

** Obama executed an interesting balancing act between support for democratic and reform tendencies, including women's rights, in the Arab and Muslim worlds and diplomacy with its current leaders, many of whom are hardly democratic or reformist but whose support Obama mostly needs. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has clung to power for decades, welcomed Obama to Cairo and summited with him, but notably did not attend this speech, citing the death of a grandson who actually died a few weeks ago. And, notably, some of Mubarak's opponents did attend the speech.

Obama supported the aspirations of Muslim women, some of whom wish to succeed in the secular sense, without lecturing from the American standpoint, which would not be helpful in Afghanistan. (Ironically, what some Americans fail to grasp is that their liberal views are just as much anathema to Islamic fundamentalists as those of Bush and Cheney.)

** And Obama promoted economic development and opportunity. Recognizing a fear of modernity and globalization, he declared: "There need not be contradiction between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education. This is important because no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work."

An adroit balancing act between an Islamic imperative of tradition and a youthful population's desire for material gain.

Will Obama's heavily-spotlighted attempt to dramatically reposition America in the Muslim world work?

It has a decent chance.

A new Gallup Poll of 11 essentially Islamic countries in the Arab world shows that favorable views of America have risen since Barack Obama became president. But most are in wait-and-see mode. And the view of America has actually gone down amongst Palestinians, who saw their territory the scene of heavy fighting when Israeli forces executed an incursion to take on Hamas.

The good news is that it can only go up from the days of the Bush/Cheney Administration.

As Gallup noted: "Throughout much of President George W. Bush's second term, Gallup found U.S. leadership approval ratings in many Arab countries at times in the single digits and among the lowest in the world."

Bush ended his sojourn in the Arab world having shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist, who promptly became a national hero in the very country the former president sought to "liberate."

Not only did no one throw shoes at Obama, the crowd of 3,000 in the Cairo University auditorium today -- the speech was not held in an outdoor plaza for obvious security reasons -- gave the new American president a standing ovation.

So it has to be counted a good start.

Watching this speech in the middle of the night here in California, as an unseasonal hail and rain storm beat down upon my roof, I had the feeling that the world might be changing again.