For the past week or so, the Middle East has been abuzz with speculation about Barack Obama's “historic address to the Muslim world” to be delivered in Cairo on Thursday. During his presidential campaign, Obama had promised to make such a move within his first 100 days at the White House.
In the event, the first 100 days came and went without Obama delivering on his promise. Nevertheless, he granted his first interview as President to Saudi television and, later, made a speech at the Turkish parliament in Ankara. On both occasions he highlighted the Islamic element of his background and solemnly declared that the “United States is not and will never be at war with Islam”.
Obama has aroused more curiosity in the Middle East than any previous US leader, partly because of his Arabic-Islamic first and middle names. The choice of the date for Obama's address indicates his attention to detail. It coincides with the anniversary of the start of the first battle between Islam, under Prophet Muhammad, and Christendom in the shape of a Byzantine expeditionary force in AD629. The “address to Islam” also marks the 30th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini's demise and the appointment of Ali Khamenei as the new “Supreme Guide of the Islamic ummah”. More importantly, it also coincides with the rebuilding of the Ka'abah, the stone at the heart of Mecca, which had been destroyed in a Muslim civil war.
Rich in symbolism, Obama's “address to Islam” is also full of political implications. Obama is the first major Western leader, after Bonaparte, to address Islam as a single bloc, thus adopting the traditional Islamic narrative of dividing the world according to religious beliefs. This ignores the rich and conflict-ridden diversity of the 57 Muslim-majority nations and fosters the illusion, peddled by people such as Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Islam is one and indivisible and should, one day, unite under a caliphate.
By adopting the key element of the Islamist narrative, that is to say the division of humanity into religious blocs, Mr Obama also intends to send a signal to the Middle East's nascent democratic forces that Washington is abandoning with a vengeance George W. Bush's “freedom agenda”.
Mr Bush's analysis had been simple, or as Mr Obama suggests, simplistic: the 9/11 attacks were the result of decades of US support for repressive regimes in the Middle East that had produced closed systems in which terror thrived. In an address to university students in Cairo in 2005, Condoleezza Rice explained the “Bush doctrine” in these terms: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East - and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course.”
That different course transformed the US from a supporter of the status quo to an active agent for change - including the use of force to remove two obnoxious regimes in Kabul and Baghdad. It also coerced traditional Arab states to adopt constitutions, hold elections, grant women the vote, ease pressure on the media, and allow greater space for debate and dissent.
Mr Obama has started scrapping that policy in the name of “political realism”, the currently fashionable phrase in Washington. The “political realist” school could also be called the “let them stew in their juices” school. It argues that Arabs, and other Muslims, are not ready for democracy and may not even like it if they encountered it. Rather than trying to shock “traditional societies” out of their sleep of centuries, Western powers, especially America, should try to maintain stability.
In her recent visit to Cairo to prepare for Mr Obama's visit, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made no mention of human rights, democratisation and good governance. Vice-President Biden's visit to Lebanon, where a crucial election is due on June 7, was designed to hammer home a similar message: Mr Obama is more interested in the country's stability than the victory of democratic forces.
The problem is that the status quo in the Middle East was and remains unstable. Sixty years of “political realist” support for the regimes in the region produced five Arab-Israel wars, civil wars in Lebanon and Yemen, military coups d'état in eight Arab countries, the Islamic revolution in Iran, and two wars between US-led international coalitions and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Richard Nixon tried to promote a new architecture of stability aimed at helping Washington's regional allies to maintain the status quo. Ultimately, this Nixon doctrine also failed because it ignored the region's explosive desire for change.
Is Mr Obama similarly hoping to build a bloc of Arab states led by Egypt and supported by Turkey and Israel? Or, as some Arabs fear, is he reaching out to Iran to resume its position as “the local gendarme”? The policy of “engaging Iran” cannot exclude a regional leadership position for the Khomeinist regime.
In trying to prove that he is not George Bush, Barack Obama has committed big mistakes on key issues of foreign policy. His Cairo address, and his “one-size-fits-all” Islam policy, is just the latest. It encourages Islamists and ruling despots, discourages the forces of reform and change and, ultimately, could produce greater resentment of the United States among peoples thirsting for freedom, human rights and decent governance.
Amir Taheri, a commentator on Islamic affairs.