In Cairo on Thursday, Obama will give what may be his most important speech. It will be directed to “the Muslim world.” This speech, publicly announced some time ago, will be preceded by a visit to Riyadh before he travels on to Cairo.
The day after his Cairo speech, he will travel to Germany to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dresden. The two will hold bi-lateral talks – possibly in the Green Vault Museum – and later hold a press conference. Following that, Obama has scheduled a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he will be accompanied by Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Elie Wiesel, who survived both the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps before being liberated from Buchenwald by American troops on April 11, 1945, will also be in attendance.
It’s not yet clear whether Obama will use this opportunity to visit other parts of Dresden or Weimar. That evening, he is scheduled to fly to Paris, and on the following day he will take part in activities celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings in Normandy.
A curious itinerary: Riyadh, Cairo, Buchenwald and Normandy?
The itinerary was obviously not a long time in the planning; it just turned out this way. But, nonetheless, one can recognize a theme in the individual stops that unites the whole journey.
Obama has several reasons to reach out to Muslims from Riyadh and Cairo:
- He wants to move the peace process forward and support the “moderate” powers in the Arab world who are prepared to recognize Israel;
- He simultaneously increases pressure on Israel to hold up its end of the process (a stop to expanding settlements, more freedom of movement in the West Bank, lifting the Gaza blockade and final status negotiations);
- He also wants to solidify an alliance of moderates against the Iranian nuclear program and calm their fears that his offer to negotiate with Iran serves only to naively support Iran’s desire for hegemony;
- He wants to heal the wounds opened by the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies.
With this approach, of course, he risks raising Israeli fears that there will be a shift in America’s policy culminating in treating Israel as “just another Middle Eastern nation, like all the others.”
And that’s where the visit to Buchenwald, planned some time ago, comes into play. Here is where Obama can show the world that America will continue to oppose anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers. One basis for Israel’s legitimacy – the idea of “never again helplessly led to slaughter, never again without rights or a nation” – can be symbolically strengthened, if he lays a wreath at Buchenwald after addressing the Muslims in Cairo. And if Obama is able to make a personal connection to the liberation of a concentration camp because his great-uncle, Charlie Payne, participated in it as a soldier in 1945, then he gains credibility in the face of critics who may accuse him of giving in to Israel’s enemies.
The Normandy visit – in addition to a stop at the military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, where casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan receive treatment – helps round out this impression. This is where Obama shows his patriotic credentials as a supporter of a military protecting world freedom and human rights. It will be hard for his Republican enemies to make the case that he is selling out Israeli-American security interests against such a backdrop.
But everything depends upon how the visits to Riyadh and Cairo turn out. Will Obama find the right words there? Will he raise the issue of human rights in both these extremely unpopular dictatorships?
Herein lies the paradox of his journey: Obama will deliver his address from, of all places, two Arab states whose legitimacy is already questioned by many Muslims, from liberals to extremists. Of course, he can’t snub his hosts, or he risks losing the support of important allies in the peace process. But if he appears with them only in a photo-op embrace, he loses credibility among critics of those two undemocratic nations.
One day after his trip – Sunday, June 7 – voters in Lebanon go to the polls; a week after his Cairo speech elections will be held in Iran. Will Ahmedinejad be reelected? Will Hezbollah be the decisive factor in Lebanon?
Many voters will have heard Obama’s words before they cast their ballots. They’ll also be voting on his new Middle East policies.