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Obama takes swing at the U.S.-Muslim wall   

In most quarters, positive reaction

LEFT, TOP: An Orthodox Jew watches Obama's speech on TV screens in Jerusalem yesterday. LEFT, BOTTOM: Pakistanis listen to the speech, translated into Urdu, in Lahore.
LEFT, TOP: An Orthodox Jew watches Obama's speech on TV screens in Jerusalem yesterday. LEFT, BOTTOM: Pakistanis listen to the speech, translated into Urdu, in Lahore.Read more

CALL IT A SIGN of the times. In the 20th century, when American presidents wanted to make their permanent mark on foreign policy, the motto was - in the immortal words of John F. Kennedy - "let them come to Berlin."

But with a new millennium and the Cold War arguably in the rear-view mirror, President Obama went to Cairo yesterday to tear down a wall that may be even more complicated than the Soviet one faced by JFK and Ronald Reagan - the tall barrier of U.S.-Muslim relations.

And in a low-key, almost Spocklike manner, Obama arrived in Egypt bearing measured words and logic, not the hot rhetoric of conflict.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences," he said, "we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

That's a pretty tall order. Did Obama accomplish his mission? And what exactly was his mission in addressing the Muslim world in such a high-profile manner, less than five months into his presidency? We try to break it all down for you.

Q. Why did Obama feel it was so important that a speech to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims become a worldwide media event?

A. One thing that few can dispute is that nearing the end of a decade marked by terrorism in the U.S. and two American wars on Muslim soil, relations are at a low ebb.

In Obama's host country of Egypt, for example, approval of America's leadership plunged to just 6 percent at the end of George W. Bush's presidency, improving slightly to 25 percent as Obama took office. The new administration clearly believes that improved dialogue between Americans and Muslims could be a tipping point in getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, quelling an insurgency in Afghanistan and resolving the seemingly intractable differences between Israel and Palestinians.

Q. So were there any big surprises in the speech?

A. Big surprises? Not really. Obama had promised American voters during the 2008 campaign that one of his priorities would be to restore the nation's battered image around the globe in the wake of the Iraq war and U.S. torture revelations - and yesterday was his attempt to make good on that.

Q. Were there any small surprises, at least?

A. Maybe a couple. Some experts noted that in referring to the conflict in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank, Obama referred to the first time to "Palestine" instead of "a Palestinian state," perhaps a symbol of his determination to gain a two-state solution to the conflict in the region.

Conversely, he never once thanked or even mentioned the name of the ruler of his host country, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. The message there seemed to be an indirect criticism of undemocratic practices and human-rights abuses in Egypt.

Obama seemed to take a poke at his hosts when he said "we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people. This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others."

Q. That said, did the speech go over well with his intended target audience, Muslims abroad?

A. Most initial comments reported from regular citizens around the world were positive - with many listeners seeing Obama's words as a step in the right direction, depending on whether America follows up that rhetoric with changed policies.

"I grew up as a Muslim, and some religious leaders told us to hate other people," Hani Ameer, an Iraqi immigrant in London, told the Associated Press. "So he was speaking directly at me, telling us to stop hating Israelis and Jews. He is the most powerful man in the world and millions of people around the Middle East will see hope in what he said."

That said, some Islamic people are still bitter over the last decade. "Whatever wounds America has inflicted on the world, they are very deep and they cannot be erased away by only one speech," Pakistani political analyst Siraj Wahab told Aaj TV.

Q. What is most critical from a policy view?

A. Most Arabs - both leaders and the rank-and-file - are watching to see what America will do differently under Obama to resolve the simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which experts see as a root cause of anti-Americanism.

So far, Obama has pushed harder than the Bush administration in seeking to halt new Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Said the president: "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."

However, he also stressed that the bonds between the United States and Israel are "unbreakable," a point that he punctuated with a planned visit today to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and with harsh criticism of Holocaust deniers, a clear slam on Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Q. How did Obama do with his other tough audience, American conservatives?

A. Not as badly as you might expect. Some conservative pundits complained that Obama was too lukewarm toward Israel, while anchors on Fox News called the president's trip part of "the American apology tour." But even some critics on the U.S. right acknowledged the value of an American-Muslim dialogue. *