Why, just two weeks into a 209-week term, assess a new American president's record on so esoteric a subject as the Middle East and Islam? In Barack Obama's case, because of:
(1) A contradictory record: His background brims over with wild-eyed anti-Zionist radicals such as Ali Abunimah, Rashid Khalidi, and Edward Said, with Islamists, the Nation of Islam, and the Saddam Hussein regime; but since being elected he has made predominantly center-left appointments and his statements resemble those of his Oval Office predecessors.
(2) The outsized role of the Middle East and Islam: His first fortnight in office witnessed an inaugural address that mentioned them prominently, a first diplomatic telephone call to Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the appointment of two high-profile envoys, and the first interview granted to Al-Arabiya television channel.
Barack Obama speaks on Al-Arabiya television channel.
What to make of this whirlwind?
Afghanistan and Iraq: No surprises – more emphasis on the former and less on the latter ("you're going to see me following through with dealing with a drawdown of troops in Iraq").
Iran: A willingness to talk to the Iranian regime mixed with a flabby reassertion of the unacceptability of Tehran's actions ("Iran has acted in ways … not conducive to peace and prosperity").
Arab-Israeli conflict: A strange mix: Yes, statements about Israel's security imperatives and no condemnation of its war against Hamas. But also effusive praise for the "Abdullah Plan," a 2002 initiative that has Arabs accept Israel's existence in return for Israel return to the June 1967 borders, a plan distinct from other diplomatic initiatives for its many loose ends and its total reliance on Arab good faith. Israeli elections on Feb. 10 are likely to bring a government to power not favorably inclined to this plan, spelling rocky U.S.-Israeli relations ahead.
War on terror: One analyst announced that Obama is "ending the war on terror," but this is speculation. Yes, early on Jan. 22, Obama referred to "the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism," which avoided saying "war on terror," but later that same day he did precisely refer to the "war on terror." Given the many clumsy ways George W. Bush referred to this war, including "the great struggle against extremism that is now playing out across the broader Middle East," Obama's inconsistency so far suggests continuity with Bush more than change.
Reaching out to the Muslim world: Obama's reference to wanting to return to "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago" revises history, ignoring that 1989 was a bad year and 1979 the worst ever for U.S.-Muslim relations. (In November 1979 alone, Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran and then seized the American embassy in Tehran, while an Islamist insurgency in Mecca inspired a wave of attacks against U.S. missions in eight majority-Muslim countries.)
Democracy: Harkening back to the good old days of "20 or 30 years ago" does contain a real message, however, as Fouad Ajami points out. This phrasing signals "a return to Realpolitik and business-as-usual" in relations with the Muslim world. Bush's "freedom agenda" has been in retreat for over for three years; now, with Obama, tyrants can breathe yet more easily.
Finally, there is the issue of Obama's personal connection to Islam. During the campaign, he denounced discussion of his connections to Islam as "fear-mongering," and those exploring this subject found themselves vilified. He so severely discouraged use of his middle name, Hussein, that John McCain apologized when a warm-up speaker at a campaign event dared mention "Barack Hussein Obama." After the election, the rules changed dramatically, with the oath of office administered to "Barack Hussein Obama" and the new president volunteering, "I have Muslim members of my family, I have lived in Muslim countries."
It's bad enough that family connections to Islam perceived as a liability when campaigning are suddenly exploited once in office to win Muslim goodwill. Worse, as Diana West observes: "not since Napoleon has a leader of a Western superpower made so unabashed a political pitch to the people of the Muslim world."*
To sum up, while Obama's retreat from democratization marks an unfortunate and major change in policy, his apologetic tone and apparent change in constituency present a yet more fundamental and worrisome direction.
* But see "FDR Addresses the Arabs."