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  America
Obama's Upcoming Trip to Europe, Middle East.
Special Contribution
By Neal Urwitz
US President Barack Obama mingles with people.

H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: Good morning and welcome to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I'm Andrew Schwartz, vice-president for external relations here, and thank you all for coming today for our briefing. We're going to discuss the president's upcoming trip next week. I have here with me two of my favorite colleagues, Jon Alterman, who's our Middle East program director. Dr. Alterman will discuss the president's speech in Cairo, the stop-over in Saudi Arabia, and any other questions you might have, including about President Abbas's visit today to the White House.

Dr. Steve Flanagan is our Henry Kissinger chair here at CSIS and he's, as you know, a well-known Europe expert and security expert and he can talk about some of the bilaterals that are going to be happening in Europe. And with that, I'd like to welcome you all again and I'm turning it over to Jon Alterman.

JON ALTERMAN: Thanks very much. It's good to see you all again and good to put some faces to some names that I've had on the other end of the phone. If somebody can tell me who President Obama intends to address in Cairo in June 4th, I'd be grateful. Is he talking to the Muslim world, the Muslim communities or to Muslims themselves? Is he talking principally to Muslim majority societies or to the hundreds of millions of Muslims who live as minorities in the rest of the world?

What about non-Muslim minorities and Muslim majority societies? I must confess, I'm not at all sure who is in the Muslim world and who's outside of it and I've never met a Muslim who is clear on that point either. Whatever the precise audience however, the president will be addressing a group of people who not only feel that U.S. government policy has wronged them, but that they've unfairly been its targets.

Despite the belief of many in the Brush administration that they were liberating Muslims, many Muslims saw the global war on terror as a thinly veiled global war on Islam, prosecuted with zeal by a president who is not shy about expressing his own evangelical Christian beliefs. Rather than feeling the administration's compassion, they instead believed that the administration's actions displayed a callous disregard for Muslim suffering in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq and beyond.

In the wake of this, the United States was not only unpopular among many Muslims; it was reviled. And the hard truth is this: There's nothing Barack Obama could say to Muslims on June 4th that will make the United States popular, and he shouldn't try. I'm going to tell you why and what he should do instead.

First, we're a rich and powerful country and being rich and powerful doesn't help anybody win popularity contests. You can see this in our country; people tend to see the rich as smug, greedy, and self-dealing, exhibiting disregard for the law and having little interest in the common good. Of course, there are exceptions and many spectacularly wealthy individuals have established foundations that have made material contributions to human progress. But that doesn't make the rich popular as a class and it doesn't make individual rich people popular either. I wanted to ask Bill Gates about this, but you know, he's probably too self-important to respond to my e-mails.

Second, running around chasing popularity never made anyone popular, but trying too hard has certainly made people less popular. The most popular in my experience are those who are self-confident without being arrogant, not those who constantly exude their neediness for friendship and admiration. Third, some of our unpopularity in this part of the world stems from policy choices that we've made that we won't change and, quite frankly, we shouldn't change. Our policies are a reflection of our interests and our alliances and while they may change moderately from administration to administration, the underlying interests are simply not allied with the policies that many Muslims around the world would like to see the United States pursue.

We're going to have to agree to disagree. And that's the first task for the president – to frame U.S. policy in a way that takes some of the passion out of widespread hostility to the United States. For a lot of audiences out there, moving them from violent hostility to grudging disapproval would be a tremendous victory. The president should do this as he's addressed any number of other issues in the campaign and beyond: by underlining the many concepts on which we agree, and opening a dialogue on the things on which we disagree.

Through his respectful approach to differences of view, the president's style is an important asset and a point of contrast with the previous administration. If this is going to be a truly successful speech though, I think the president has to go further; he has to persuade audiences that those who take up arms against America and its allies don't hold out the promise of moral redemption, but only more violence and strife.

I think he does that by reclaiming the language of justice. Justice is one of the most prominent themes in Islam. Adl is totally central to the way Muslims see the world and see societies. Rather than being centered around the idea of achieving a balance, because I think a lot of Americans see justice as a balance between different interests, Muslim understandings of justice tend to be based principally in ideas about morality.

To Muslim audiences, the core aspect of justice isn't that it's redistributive or that it's even-handed, but that it's ethical; by extension, injustice is linked to immorality. Injustice, too, is a key concept in Islam and according to one authority, the word for injustice, zulm, is one of the most important negative value words in the Quran, appearing in more than 280 places. Americans have been unwilling to talk about justice in the Middle East because we haven't wanted to tip the balance away from our friends. By seemingly skirting the issue of justice, though, we've suggested to Muslim audiences that U.S. policy in the Middle East is both immoral and illegitimate and those fighting against it have right on their side.

I don't want to go too far here. It's clear that most in the Middle East would favor the United States pursuing a more balanced policy or what they see as a more balanced policy in the Middle East. The desire for redistributive justice, which is common in the United States, is clearly there. In addition, I don't want to say that American notions of justice don't have any moral component either, because clearly they do, and that helps explain the role religious movements have played in efforts to pursue social justice or economic justice, so it's not clear-cut.

And of course, ideas about justice and injustice are complex and they're inconsistent not only within every society but often within individuals. There isn't a simple way of seeing the issue of justice, but the important thing to note is that I think Americans are increasingly at odds with Muslim audiences for the wrong reasons. Many Muslims see the U.S. aversion to embracing a goal of justice as an indifference to, if not an embrace of, immorality and that doesn't help the United States and it doesn't help America's friends around the world.

In the last administration, we heard a lot about democracy and liberty and freedom. These are ideas that come out of our own enlightenment history and tradition, and I hold those ideals dear true. But if I'm honest, I have to concede that they don't really resonate among Muslim audiences; justice does. As Americans, we continue to work slowly and often haltingly toward creating a more just society. We've had our successes and failures but the overall direction is clear.

Obama has an opportunity to connect Muslims and Americans in a shared journey towards justice, even if differences remain about the precise destination. The president needs to demonstrate to Muslim audiences just how much we share in common, and how whatever our differences, we must embark in a shared vision towards justice in the Middle East together.

At the same time, such an approach would reveal that those who shroud themselves in the cloak of justice have no monopoly on morality; indeed, many have little morality on their side. The moral ground is occupied by those who strive for justice, not those who kill in the name of it. That kind of speech isn't going to win the president many friends, but I think it will win him some respect. It will also provide a framework for a more constructive relationship between the United States and more than a billion people around the world. Steve.

MR. SCHWARTZ: Before I throw it to Steve, we should just, for the record, correct that, you know, Bill Gates doesn't return Jon's e-mails but he does fund one of our largest policy centers, our Global Health Policy Center here.

STEPHEN FLANAGAN: My colleague will revise and extend his remarks for the record, right? Well, thank you. The European portion of the trip is really more retrospective than forward-leaning I think. But there, undoubtedly – there will be bilateral discussions, although in Germany, the president is treading a very careful line because he doesn't want to look as if he's tilting – with the upcoming German elections – that he's in any way tilting in favor of Merkel in the electoral poll which will take place in September.

But, and I'm sure that the Europeans will be looking very, very carefully to see what the ripple effects are from the president's visits to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But let me say, as you know, the stop is Dresden in East Germany; interestingly, I can't remember a time when a U.S. president has been to Eastern Germany. I think he's been to Berlin, obviously, but not to a major town outside the old West Germany. He's been visiting the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald. His great uncle, as you know, Charlie Payne, took part in the liberation of Buchenwald. And Obama has spoken very eloquently about being quite moved by that whole experience and the shock and horror that his uncle experienced, having seen the effects of that forced labor camp and the aftermath and its liberation.

So as I say, he has been studiously calling this a personal visit, but I can't imagine that there won't be some discussion of some of the key policy issues and I'll touch on that. Also, in France of course, this visit to D-Day and commemoration – 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings – this may be one of the last times that a president can do this and still have many veterans of that liberation still standing to go to the beaches of Omaha and to visit the cemetery – the American War Cemetery at Colleville Su Mer.

It's a – you know, obviously will be a very moving moment. Sarkozy has promised to offer what he, quote, called an "extraordinary welcome," and of course, this is also a delicate dancing act, since he'll be coming from Germany. So he can't play up too much about reminding who the French and Americans were fighting for liberation from. So it's an interesting sequence of events, just as a matter of politics.

But in terms of what, surely, Obama will want to talk to both Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy will be the global economic crisis, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the future of the Middle East peace process and this whole question of the greater Middle East. And Turkey could also come up in the context of the potential for a looming crisis with the EU over Turkey, particularly coming in the aftermath of the President's trip to Ankara and Istanbul, where he called for a development of a model partnership with Turkey.

So let me touch on each of those very quickly. I think the state of U.S. talks with Germany and France and some of the other major EU economies in the aftermath of the G-20 meeting is still a little fuzzy. I think the Europeans were feeling they – particularly the French and the Germans. You'll recall, there was a lot of reporting about how the more regulated economies of France and Germany seemed at first to be bouncing back a lot better than the U.S. economy was. I think that sense of hubris and confidence is gone a little bit, and indeed, now there's a little concern that maybe the European stimulus package, which the Europeans thought was adequate, wasn't big enough, that there is a need for more capital to get things going.

And so they're reconsidering. And Merkel herself is dealing with a rescue plan for the German auto industry, particularly some of the GM-affiliated, Opel in particular. But that is an ongoing debate that she's grappling with, so I'm sure that both with Merkel, but also with Sarkozy, there will be some discussion about the whole question of further efforts to expand the stimulus. And whether that's a message President Obama will be carrying or not, it's certainly one that a lot of economists are saying that the Europeans need to look at that.

I think, as I said, Obama will have to be very careful with Merkel, given the 27 of September elections in Germany. She's, of course, engaged in a battle with one of her coalition partners in a sense. The German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, as the SPD leader, is seen as one of the key contenders. So they'll have to be careful balance pursued there, but I do think it's an opportunity for them to continue to advance the relationship and to move forward on a couple of key issues. And here, there is a difference between the German and the French commitment with regard to Af-Pak and the Afghanistan engagement.

The NATO summit, I think, was very disappointing for the Obama administration. The administration has been saying that, well, the strategy wasn't really completed until just before the April summit in Strasbourg-Kiel, therefore, we didn't come in with a big ask. However, before that time there was, indeed, a lot of anticipation that a number of European governments would come forward with a big offer.

And of course, what they produced was a quite disappointing offer of an additional surge of about 3,000 troops in the run up to the elections, another 1,400 to 2,000 trainers and some promise of – and the establishment of a NATO training mission in Afghanistan – all valuable, but far from what I think many might have hoped for, given the euphoria about the idea that Obama was coming with a new strategy, with an approach which the Europeans embraced very much and said, aha, you know, the administration has come forward, now, with an approach that emphasizes the civil and reconstruction dimensions more than the military.

But now what we see is a bit a of sparring going on where a lot of the Europeans are saying, well, we heard the strategy was going to have a bigger civil component, and we think that in a sense this was a victory for our – what we've been saying all along – less of the kinetic approach, more of the civil engagement and reconstruction strengthening governance – but now Europeans are saying, well, we haven't seen – where's the rest of the civil approach?

And so it looks to be that there's also some sparring going on within the administration over, well, where is the State Department and USAID on developing that element of the civil approach so at least the Europeans don't have a talking point anymore to say, well, we haven't seen what it is that you're going to do on the civil side. It seems to us that you're still emphasizing the capture and killing or eliminating the al Qaeda and other insurgent elements as you talk about a more limited objective.

So that will be an interesting discussion to see how the allies come out on that. The French have, of course, been much more willing to be engaged in the so-called kinetic part of the operation in the South and the East. They have also taken a fair number of casualties, particularly last summer, as you recall, when they added some of their forces. They are willing to taken this lead on the European gendarme force to support the development of the Afghan national police, which of course ISAF commanders have identified as an important priority.

The other big question will be, I think, Iran. The French and the German governments have both been very supportive of Obama's strategy and waiting to see what that strategy will be. But on how an engagement will go forward, particularly after the Iranian elections – but there has been some question about will they also support, in light of the recent Iranian missile test and the seeming commitment to plowing ahead on the nuclear development, what kind of steps will they take on further sanctions, if that's called for?

There was, of course, some additional sanctions added recently, but it does seem as if a number of the Europeans are thinking also more about the longer-term question of containment of the Iranian threat. The French, interestingly – Sarkozy was in Abu Dhabi earlier this month – in last month, I'm sorry – where he announced – signed a deal for the opening of a French base in Abu Dhabi. So there is some interest, certainly on the French side, to looking at containment and deterrence of Iran over the long term.

But the question of what other steps can be taken to actually stop the nuclear program is out there, and I'm sure Obama will be looking particularly on the French side. But the Germans also have been supportive of this effort and have a lot of economic engagement in Iran from historical engagement with Iran, and so they could be an important player in this effort to further isolate Iran, if that is in fact what steps are taken.

Lastly, on the Middle East peace process, I suspect the Europeans will be mostly in a listening mode to hearing what Obama has to say with his meetings with Netanyahu. Both the French and the Germans have said they very much support the administration's recommitment and the effort of both having the special envoy and the sense that this will be a major commitment. But I think they will be mostly in a listening mode to find out what it is that Obama feels is possible in light of his discussions with Netanyahu.

And lastly, I think as I said, the reverberations from his Turkey trip, I think he'll – I suspect that President Obama will lay down some markers and concern about the fact that it's possible that during the Czech presidency, Turkey will not open two chapters with the EU in its accession discussions, which has been kind of a steady measure of progress – also, the important energy chapter which is key to – there has been some progress in some elements related to Turkey's energy discussions with the EU, but I think the hope, looking to the Swedish presidency that will be starting in June – in July actually – I think there will be some, probably some encouragement to the European, the big two, to say that it's important that continue to move forward with Turkey's EU discussions.

The president will have to be careful because, of course, he invoked some ire from the Europeans about his very public display of support when he addressed the Turkish Grand National Assembly on this question. But I do think that this is an important part of also the strategy long-term of weaning Europe from dependence on gas that flows across Russian territory. So I think that will be another part of this discussion that will be taken in the bilats. So that's probably enough from me for now, look forward to your questions.

MR. SCHWARTZ: We'd love to take some of your questions, and if you could identify yourself and your news organization that'd be very helpful. Jennifer.

Q: Jennifer Levin, with the AP. For Jon, when you were talking about this issue of justice in the Muslim world and how Obama could focus on that, could you talk about some specific things you think he could say that would really resonate with folks in the Muslim world to kind of bring that idea forward and to make some progress on it? And then secondly, could you talk a little bit about why you think they added the Saudi stop?

MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah, I think that the most important thing is to articulate the U.S. wants justice in the Middle East. The U.S. is an advocate for justice, the U.S. has been working for justice, and justice is a process, it's a journey. It's something that the United States has been struggling with in our own society for centuries, and he spoke movingly about that in Philadelphia. I think articulating it as a goal and identifying efforts that we've made to pursue it is the beginning of reframing this debate and viewing the U.S. efforts in the Middle East with some degree of morality, or at least a defensive degree of morality, instead of a sense that we are indifferent to morality or avowedly amoral.

I don't think Americans – I think Americans think of ourselves as being peculiarly moral in our activities in the Middle East, partly because we started getting engaged in the Middle East through missionary activity in the 19th century. The American University in Beirut, the American University in Cairo, all the protestant schools that were set up – we see ourselves being peculiarly moral in what we do in the Middle East and I think we are seen by people in the Middle East as being peculiarly amoral. And I think we have to reframe that discussion.

MS. LEVIN: Talking about leadership in the Middle East, I think that obviously encompasses the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, but does it extend to talking explicitly about the leadership in some of the countries in the Middle East?

MR. ALTERMAN: I think it probably doesn't involve picking and choosing and saying these leaders are moral, these leaders are amoral, we're going to work to overthrow – I mean, that's not, I think, a constructive position for the president to take. I think what he talks about – when you talk about morality, I think societies strive for morality rather than governments.

And I think it helps move us to an alignment with society, and then the governments, in some ways, reflect the desires of collective societies, and we want governments to respect the dignity of individuals and those sorts of things. So I think there are ways to square that. I don't think what you do is you sort of go through a laundry list of things we're going to do and say look – this is moral, this is moral, this is moral, so therefore we're moral. I don't think that a laundry list is going to satisfy anybody. Instead, I think this speech really has to be about framing.

MS. LEVIN: It's more conceptual framing?

MR. ALTERMAN: I think it is conceptual in framing, and that is the kind of speech he gave at Notre Dame, it is the kind of speech he gave in Philadelphia – I think that's the kind of speech that's called for here. What the Arabs are looking for, quite frankly, is they want a peace plan in this speech. And I've spoken to some senior officials and I said, well, first of all, why would he ever unveil a peace plan in Cairo? That's not exactly neutral territory.

I also don't think the president is ready, and I also think this is something the president was talking about in December, before he had any tactical desire to move a peace plan forward. So I think what you're going to see is a conceptual speech; I think it will touch on issues of justice and dignity. I think he will have to deal, in some way, with human
rights,especially because it is in Egypt, and that has raised eyebrows.

I think he has to put the United States on the right side, but not on the hectoring and judgmental side, because when you run against governments in that way, the governments always play the patriotism card and they win. I think it's very hard to be more patriotic than a sitting government as a foreign government. And so how he works this, I think, is going to be a delicate trick. I think it's good he's stopping off in Saudi. I think this administration hasn't quite come to terms with where Saudi Arabia fits into its regional strategy.

And when it first thinks about Saudi Arabia, it often thinks about getting independence from foreign oil and buying oil from people who are really fundamentally unlike us – which doesn't help you get the things done in the Middle East that you need the Saudis to help you get done. Saudi Arabia has played a very constructive role on counter-radicalization – they have one of the stronger programs around the world in counter-radicalization, they have helped us in a whole range of intelligence matters and military matters and others.

I think in a year's time, you're going to see a much closer U.S.-Saudi relationship than you have now, and I think it's good that the president is stopping off – as he's talking about Arab-Israeli peace, he is consulting with the Saudi King because the reality is, when you want to get stuff done in the Middle East, having the Saudis working with you makes a big difference, and having the Saudis working against you also makes a big difference – and it's better to have them working with you.

MR. SCHWARTZ: George.

Q: George Condon with the Congress Daily. Jon, you talked about the reaction to American policy by the Muslim world; can you talk about whether they are open to this president? Does the fact that his middle name is Hussein and he's the first black president – does that buy him anything either on the Muslim street or in the leadership?

MR. ALTERMAN: You know, I think there are a bunch of things that give him a hearing. One is that he grew up partly in a Muslim-majority country; he seems to be empathetic from personal experience in a way that President Bush wasn't. The fact that he's an African-American president, I think, makes a difference because of a sense in many of these societies that you can't get ahead in those societies because of who your parents are – that these aren't meritocratic.

And I think for a lot of people, a lot of striving people, the idea that the United States is such a meritocracy that a kid who grew up with a single mom, with an absent African-American father can become president of the United States is a powerful idea for people who have their own aspirations for success based on their talents.

The fact that he's young – that – I mean, I was in Egypt in the early '90s when Bill Clinton was elected. Hosni Mubarak had just been reelected for the second, maybe third time – '92. And the sense was, wow, you guys can get rid of a president you don't like – because George H.W. Bush lost the election and instead we have this young president – and Egyptians said, that's kind of cool, to get rid of presidents we don't like, and have a new president.

So this sort of demonstration effect of bringing – of getting rid of somebody who people don't like and bringing in somebody who's more attractive. I think also, it doesn't have to do with President Obama's specific biography, but it does have to do with the sort of – people's aspirations for more flexibility in their own political systems – that the people can rise up.

Yeah, I think in many cases it doesn't go much beyond that – and what you see if you look at – Shibley Telhami released some polling numbers last week – and what it seems to – the way I read them, is there's an openness, there's a willingness to listen. There's not approval to U.S. policy – there's not an embrace of the United States – but there's a sense that maybe somebody different has something different to say, and they should give him a hearing.

I think the president's honeymoon in the Middle East is not going to last for a very long time, because the policy isn't going to change and part of the objection is over the policy. But I don't have a problem with people having honest objections to U.S. policy; I have a problem with people having dishonest objections to U.S. policy – to people seeing immoral motives where they don't exist. We're going to have differences; we have differences with a lot of our friends. And the problem is sort of right-sizing these and getting them to be honest differences instead of building up the differences into some sort of moral Millenialist confrontation that it's not.

Q: Hi, I'm Margaret Coker from the Wall Street Journal. Jon, what do you think the chances are, if not in this speech, by the end of the year, the White House is actually going to change its policy about talking to democratically elected Islamic parties – a change that the Middle East can believe in?

MR. ALTERMAN: There are lots of ways to talk about talking to democratically elected Islamic parties, and we talk to democratically elected Islamic parties. We talk to the PJD in Morocco. We have spoken to parliamentarians from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So I don't think that's where the barrier is; the barrier is how do you deal with political parties that claim divine right and have a militia on the side that doesn't respect the sovereignty of governments?

Now, if that's the question, I think the answer is, well, that depends on the situation and it depends on what these groups agree to do and how they behave. We have a different policy toward Hezbollah than we do toward Hamas. Secretary Clinton has suggested a potentially different policy toward Hamas. I've heard people argue – former diplomats – that the way we should treat this is to say our policy of engagement is not toward individuals, but toward the policy of the government in which these individuals serve.

So if you have a unity government in the Palestinian Authority and it happens to include members of Hamas, what we judge is not the things people say, but what the policy of the government of the Palestinian Authority is. I think that needs some refinement, but it seems to me that, in general, we shouldn't follow a policy where if anybody from Hamas is ever in a room, we won't enter the room, because it seems to me not only that that puts all of the power on the side of the people we're trying to isolate, but that a policy of doing that for five years has led to – or contributed to – Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranians all being stronger than they were five years ago.

I just – I don't see the success of the policy; I don't see the great prize of being able to talk to American diplomats has made our enemies cower. You know, to the contrary, for those of you who have had to deal with American diplomats, it's often not extremely present to deal with American diplomats, and diplomats get people to do what they don't otherwise want to do. And holding out the prospect of engaging with people to get them to do what they wouldn't otherwise do, as a punishment, I think, doesn't make sense.

Q: So – sorry – I mean, in terms of the percent chances that a policy shift or policy statement will come out by the end of the year, that America will talk to members of Hamas in a unity government as a policy statement, or the U.S. will talk to members of Hezbollah who may take over as a lead partner in the unity government in Lebanon. What are the chances that that statement will come?

MR. ALTERMAN: Well it depends – not to be legalistic, but it really does depend what you mean by "talk to," "engage," "member" – all those things. My guess is that we will continually refine the policy over the next nine months – and I don't know what's going to happen with Palestinian unity; I don't know what's going to happen in the June 7th elections in Lebanon – I mean, a lot of uncertainties. But I am certain that the U.S. government, as a whole, is going to continue to revise and refine how it deals with these groups, because conditions are going to change.

MR. SCHWARTZ: Christie.

Q: Hi, I'm Christi Parsons from the Chicago Tribune.

MR. ALTERMAN: You have to push the –

Q: Of course you do – you have to push that. I'm Christi Parsons – (inaudible, chuckles) – my staff. I'm Christi Parson's from the Chicago Tribune. Jon, you posed the question whether Obama is going to win friends or win respect, and I'm curious to know, from both of you, what you think the answer is. Also, there were some critiques after his trip to Europe and Turkey that he was really deferential in the posture that he adopted. And I wonder if you think that's true, if there appears to be or should be some sensitivity to that in this trip?

MR. ALTERMAN: Why don't you go, Steve?

MR. FLANAGAN: Well, on the – there'll be some – the question of overly deferential, I don't think will come up so much in Europe again this time, because these will be somewhat personal and memorial kinds of visits. So in Germany in particular, it's being billed as a personal visit. But there's some tricky ground. I mean, you know, for example, would he be tempted to apologize for the firebombing of Dresden – I mean, that would be an interesting question.

You know, and there's also the whole genocide question and the way in which they – the administration, you know, I think very ably finessed the question of the Armenian genocide. But here he is going to Buchenwald, taking note of the Shoah. So it's – you know, there's lots of potential minefields out there, and not to mention that, as I said, he's stepping in the middle of the German elections, so they're being very careful about this German trip. I don't think the deferential issue is going to come up there. In France, again, I don't think it could come up.

But the question, I think, will come up more about how he approaches, you know, some of the Middle East questions. In Turkey, I think that there really wasn't a sense that he was being overly deferential. I think he spoke very candidly, and indeed, you know, I was just going to echo, since I have the floor now, that some of the themes that he touched on in his speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly very much echoed this call of justice. What he did was, he was very forthright about – as he was really pointing out some of the shortcomings in the state of Turkish democracy, in the state of their treatment of the Kurdish minority, in the whole question of how they were dealing with their past history vis-à-vis Armenia – I think all of those, again, his directness and forthrightness, the idea that he emphasized the notion of justice, which also resonates very well in Turkey.

I think it actually played very well there. How it played here, I think, is less clear. Obviously, I think some on the right wanted to jump on it as, oh, he's, you know, kowtowing to these weak Europeans. I think that's really overstated. I think the Europeans welcomed the fact that we had a president that was listening a little bit. I think they felt that was important as they move forward on the idea of whether they're going to support on some of these tougher policy decisions that are ahead, you know, beginning with Iran, with Middle East, on other things – on the economic crisis. I think all those things will add to Obama's kit.

I think the proof is somewhat – you know, in Turkey, the numbers – our polling numbers in Turkey before Obama's visit, we were down around nine or 10 percent positives. That has to do mostly with Iraq and the way in which we've been seen as looking the other way with regard to PKK terrorism operating out of Northern Iraq. The Bush administration took steps to remedy that, but the polling numbers were still very down. After his trip, some of the polling I've seen – U.S. positives are up to more like 45, 50 percent, which is getting back towards normal.

So I think Obama's trip – his forthrightness, even though he told the Turks some hard things, I think it resonated very well. So in terms of his message in the region – and I think the people in the Arab world do listen to what he said and did listen to what he said in Turkey, as a predominantly Muslim country. While that was not the – he made clear that it wasn't the Muslim world speech that he's now going to be giving in Egypt, evidently, this was – I think it was a good – he laid the groundwork to reinforce some of the things Jon said he might hope to achieve in the region.

MR. ALTERMAN: Let me just say briefly, adding to what Steve said, I think one of the challenges the president is going to have, probably over the next three months – he's going to have to really demonstrate his toughness to somebody. And maybe it's going to be Binyamin Netanyahu; maybe it's going to be somebody else. We already saw Secretary Clinton, this week, say we mean settlement freeze, we mean settlement freeze – we don't mean exceptions, we don't mean natural birth – we mean settlement freeze.

The Israelis are, meanwhile, spitting out that – well, they're offering maybe we'll stop 22 outposts and how would that look? At some point, you know, the president can't be all about making people feel good and he's got to be about I'm the leader of the most powerful country in the world, I'm going to lead, and people are going to have to do some things they don't want to do. This speech is not a place to completely make that stand, but I think that for the speech to resonate, the president is going to have to demonstrate that he has a range which goes from the cerebral and conceptual to the practical and political. And I think to really have this speech take hold, he's going to have to demonstrate his range as a leader and a politician in a way that people are going to judge.

Q: Hi, Mimi Hall from USA Today. Jon, you just actually touched on – I was going to ask you what, really, the stakes are in this speech for Obama, and you sort of just touched on that, but maybe you can talk a little bit more about that in terms of the stakes for the American people. Additionally, one more thing: I wanted to ask about Condi Rice's speech in 2005 – if you thought that that speech fell into the kind of hectoring category that you just referred to and whether you thought it had any effect for good or ill?

MR. ALTERMAN: It's funny. By some very strange coincidence, I was in Cairo and she gave this speech and someone from the embassy said, hey, want to come to a speech? So I heard the speech and I was sort of sitting there and I remember listening to it and saying, you know, people don't have to be told that they don't like the secret police coming to their house in the middle of the night. I mean, you don't have to tell people what they want. And I think one of the problems that I saw in the Bush administration way of addressing these kinds of issues is, they seem to tell people what they should want instead of listening to what people want. I think they tried to inspire people instead of listening to people's aspirations and making clear how the United States was relevant to their accomplishing their aspirations.

I think when – they're already in aspirational mode. People in the Middle East are already in the aspirational mode; what they doubt is that we have a role to play in helping them get there. And I think to the extent that the president can make that link – you know, people aspire for justice, right? So to the extent we're playing a role in that, I think we have a relevance and a role in people's lives that's constructive.

This speech isn't going to reverse anything, but I think it can lay the foundation. And what I've picked up from the administration is not only that this is a long-term commitment, but it's a long-term commitment of the president – that this speech was something that the president kept raising, that I'm going to give this speech. You know, so first, they said maybe first 100 days, but – and then the fact that he gave the first interview to Al Arabiya. I keep getting indications that he thinks that the hostility to the United States among Muslim communities is a weakness.

I think it's hard to look at the world and not come to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future, American soldiers are going to die in parts of the world with large Muslim populations, if you look at where the conflicts are. So sort of getting this right, I think, is not a political gesture by the president; I think it's a strategic gesture by the president. I think he's going to continue to work on this in a range of ways, where this speech begins to lay the foundation but it's part of a process that I think he intends to continue through his presidency.

If you look at the statements of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and look at his priorities, our number one priority is the greater Middle East, which goes from Af-Pak to the Levant. I mean, it's not just the president; it's that this part of the world, for all of the energy, for all of the turmoil, for all of those reasons, is a part of the world that is strategically important. And I think it's going to be strategically important for decades and I think the president sees that and, based on his own experience, wants to try to do something about it.

Q: Steve Collins. I'm with AFP. I'd like to ask both of you if you think there is any sense that the Europeans are more serious this time about the possibility of imposing more punishing sanctions on Iran, if it should come to that – I guess the Russians, too. And just one for Steven: Who do you think the administration sees as its more important interlocutor in Europe? Sarkozy seems to have been the most accommodating; I guess Brown's a bit of a dead duck; and Merkel has been a bit of a roadblock to – on the stimulus and on Afghanistan.

MR. FLANAGAN: Well, I think you implicitly answered your own question, which I would agree with, is that I do think Sarkozy has been the most compliant and capable of key allies right now. As I said, Merkel is obviously engaged in a delicate re-election battle, and as you said, Gordon Brown is seen as a bit less capable than one might have hoped from our – you know, and the special relationship seems a little less special than it has in many years, you know, which is somewhat ironic, in a sense, to think that you had the Blair-Bush relationship that went so well – two people that ideologically, you wouldn't have thought would be close bedfellows.

But yeah, I do think the French right now have the most capacity. I mean, as I mentioned, first of all, they've shown their willingness to – they've done probably the most in terms of contributing to Afghanistan-Pakistan. I mean, they don't have the largest force there, but they are taking the lead on establishing the Sundar force. There's expected to be about 150 French police that will go in – that may seem small, but in the police area, that's not insignificant because they're going to lead that force that could grow, their promising, up to 400, which would include a number of other European countries. But the French lead on that has been important.

They, obviously, as I said, have, by moving to create this additional base in Abu Dhabi, they've shown that they're willing to maintain a military presence in the Gulf, which is obviously directed at Iran. I mean, it's a subtle signal that, you know, the West is willing to defend its interests in the region. So I think when you look around at who's most capable, if push comes to shove, either in a Middle East contingency in the Persian Gulf, some tough going in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or even, you know, some further problems in Iraq that could spill over, I think that, you know, the French and the British are the most capable militarily. I think the French are, maybe right now, the most willing to join with us, you know, particularly given Sarkozy's kind of leadership.

On Iran, I think both the French and the Germans have been hiding behind the issue a bit of, well, we have to – further sanctions beyond what the U.N. has already put in place don't make sense unless the Russians are part of the arrangement. So I think they've been hiding a little bit behind that sort of notion, well, we've got to bring the Russians along. Now, the Russians have moved rather significantly in the last few days, as you may have noticed on the reporting on the North Korean sanctions question, now.

Obviously, their relationship and engagement, economically, in Iran is much more complicated and valuable to them, but I wonder whether that will, you know, trickle over in a sense that they may be more willing to – especially in light of the recent Iranian missile tests, which you know, have to give thinking Russians some pause about their long-term ability and what the implications are of Iran with long-range missiles and then, later, nuclear warheads to put on top of them. So anyway, that's – I think that gets to your question.

MR. ALTERMAN: Two very brief points: One is that this French naval base in the UAE is known in U.S. Embassy circles as "the showroom." The sense is that it's less intended to impress the Iranians with French resolve than it is to sell French weapon systems to the wealthy sheikdoms of the Gulf. It's also worth noting that the French have opened a branch of Saint-Cyr, their military academy, in Doha. So I think that the French are making a strategic investment in the Gulf, and whether that principally pays off in terms of euros or global prestige, the jury is still out.

On Iran, I think everybody is basically waiting for the elections. And the assumption is the elections aren't going to be done June 12th – that there's going to be a second round. And given that there are enough things on everybody's plate, nobody's getting especially strategic until they see how that plays out. It seems to me that the real wild card is Russian policy. Very strangely – I did this book a year ago on China, the U.S. and the Middle East – and it seems to me that, in many ways, Chinese and U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East have come into alignment.

The Chinese are really interested in stability. They are really not interested in challenging the U.S. capacity to provide that stability, because they don't feel like they have the force-projection capacity to replace us. And they're very reliant on Middle Eastern oil – half their imported oil comes from the Middle East. So I think that while sometimes, the Chinese will be slow to come to the table and will try not to aggravate the Iranians needlessly, I think ultimately, the incentives are there for the Chinese to be onboard.

I'm not sure we have the same strategic alignment with Russia. It strikes me that, as an oil producer themselves, they don't have the same need for low oil prices. They're not reliant on Middle East for oil. They're playing a different strategic game. So I mean, as I look beyond the elections, sort of into the fall, the question in my mind would not be, are we really going to have a problem with China, but how are we going to bring Russia along.

MR. SCHWARTZ: We have time for one more.

MR. FLANAGAN: I fully agree with that, by the way. I think Russia's definitely got a different calculus here. In fact, I would argue continued tension in the region is in Russia's interest.

Q: Ana Inglicker (ph) with German Radio. Jon, in your introduction, you said we have to agree to disagree and then you refer to American policies that shouldn't change; can you just give some examples where you think there should be, really, a steadfast position?

MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah, I mean, just as a basic example, the desire in the Arab world is that the United States draw up a peace agreement and then force the Israelis to comply. I don't think that is either in the U.S. interests or it's in the U.S. toolbox. I don't think that's how peace agreements work. And I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree on that.

MR. SCHWARTZ: Jon, along those lines, can I ask you, what's the significance of the president's meeting today with Mahmoud Abbas, and is there anything that will come of it? Will it contribute to the events of next week and so forth?

MR. ALTERMAN: President Abbas has a tremendous credibility problem and that problem was exacerbated by the Israeli actions in Gaza in December and January, where rather than emerging as a strong, Palestinian leader he seemed to sit on his hands and watch his enemies be attacked militarily. I'm not sure how you make any of this work unless you have a strong Palestinian leadership.

And President Abbas has not done himself many favors, and in fact, the Israeli and American governments haven't done him any favors to try to enhance his leadership. I think President Abbas really needs to lead. He needs to make a decision about elections, which are scheduled for next January. He needs to decide whether he's going to try to reconstitute Fatah as a real party. He needs to decide what he's going to do with Hamas. And he needs to lead the Palestinian people, because if there's not Palestinian leadership – if there's not leadership within the Palestinian community – all of this on Arab-Israeli peace issues goes nowhere.

And I certainly understand the difficult position that he's in, but the fact is that difficult positions are what call for leaders to resolve them. The president, I think, will be looking for ways to help President Abbas, but there are important ways in which President Abbas has to help himself. And I think he has to be tough and he has to be tough with both Palestinians and he has to be tough with others. And he has to be tough with the Arab world. And I think, in too many cases, he has been conciliatory and his weakened position is a consequence of that.

MR. SCHWARTZ: With that, I'd like to thank you all for coming. I do have a couple of announcements. We have some handouts in the back that Neal has. In addition, tomorrow, as you know, the president's giving remarks about cyber-security and we conducted a seminal study called, "Securing Cyberspace for the 44th President." Neal has copies of that, and it also can be found at csis.org. Thanks very much for coming and we'll have a transcript out of this later today. Thank you.

Neal Urwitz
Media Relations Manager
Center for Strategic and International Studies
1800 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006
t 202.775.3167/ f. 202.775.3199
nurwitz@csis.org




 

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