Media Mention of Ghaith al-Omari in The New York Times - June 4, 2009 - 12:00am

Aiming to repair the American relationship with the Muslim world, President Obama was greeted on Wednesday with reminders of the vast gulfs his Cairo speech must bridge, as voices as disparate as Al Qaeda’s and the Israeli government’s competed to shape how Mr. Obama’s message would be heard.

In a new audiotape, Osama bin Laden condemned Mr. Obama for planting what he called new seeds of “hatred and vengeance” among Muslims, while in Jerusalem, senior Israeli officials complained that Mr. Obama was rewriting old understandings by taking a harder line against new Israeli settlements. [Pages A6 and A14.]

The speech that Mr. Obama is to deliver Thursday in Cairo is intended to make good on a two-year-old promise to use a major Muslim capital as the scene for a major address. Mr. Obama has pledged a new face and tone to relations between the United States and the Muslim world. But whether his expected call for America and Islam to come together can trump Mr. bin Laden’s call to arms is a question that could define Mr. Obama’s presidency in the years to come.

Aware of the high expectations for the speech, Mr. Obama and his advisers have spent months soliciting opinion and advice from a wide variety of experts, from men of the cloth to Arab businessmen to Persian scholars. On his first stop in the Middle East, Mr. Obama spent Wednesday afternoon with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest sites, and declared on arrival, “I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began.”

In a bid to make sure that Mr. Obama’s message will be heard, particularly among young people, the White House has mounted an unusually aggressive campaign, including a Web site created in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English where people outside the United States can sign up to receive the speech via text message. The State Department is to translate the speech into at least 13 languages.

Mr. Obama’s advisers nevertheless sought to lower expectations. “There’s been an undeniable breach between the American and Islamic world,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president.

“That breach has been years in the making. It is not going to be reversed with one speech. It’s not going to be reversed, perhaps, in one administration.”

The speech will cover a wide swath of territory, advisers said, beginning by challenging the misperceptions that Americans may hold about Muslims and that Muslims may hold about Americans. Mr. Obama will touch upon violent extremism, the threat of a nuclear Iran and the need for the expansion of human rights and democracy.

But even on Wednesday night, as Mr. Obama headed to his quarters at Al Janadriyah Farm, where he is a guest of the king, he told his advisers that he had more thinking to do on the speech and that he would deliver a final version by dawn.

As the son and grandson of Muslims, Mr. Obama has had years to reflect on America’s troubled ties with the Islamic world. But the path to the Cairo address, as described by some advisers, also offers a case study in the president’s approach to a delicate issue, one in which he reached out to dozens of people on how to shape his message.

Before his trip, he and his aides talked to American chief executives of major companies who are Muslims. He read unsolicited essays that were sent to the White House. And he sought out not only Muslims, but also Jews and people of other faiths and experts across academia.

In recent weeks, as advisers presented him with drafts of the speech, Mr. Obama would end sessions with a question. “Are you making sure that we are hearing a Muslim voice?” he would say, according to participants.

Among the Muslim business leaders consulted during the preparations were: S. A. Ibrahim of the Radian Group; Tariq Malhance, the president of UIB Capital; Hultam Olayan of the Olayan America Corporation; and Noosheen Hashemi, a former vice president at Oracle.

On the Friday afternoon before the Memorial Day weekend, White House officials hosted a group of Muslim and other foreign policy scholars to discuss what points Mr. Obama should touch on. The meeting was organized by Michael McFaul, the White House senior adviser for Russia, who arranged it under his purview as a senior democracy adviser. Other White House officials in the 90-minute meeting included the National Security Council officials Mara Rudman, Dan Shapiro, Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes.

On the other side of the table were Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian-American expert from the Carnegie Endowment, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former Palestinian peace negotiator, Vali Nasr, another Iran expert who is soon to join the Obama administration, and Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, who described for the assembled officials the results of polling in the Middle East about attitudes toward the United States, according to people in the meeting.

Even as Mr. Obama flew toward Saudi Arabia early Wednesday, he sat on Air Force One, long after most of his advisers had fallen asleep, working with pen in hand through page after page of the speech.

On the first of a five-day trip through four countries, Mr. Obama was treading carefully, with every move being carefully watched in the Middle East. He exchanged a light embrace and a double-kiss with King Abdullah, but the president did not bow as he did at their first meeting in London this year in a gesture that drew criticism.

“I also want to express my best wishes to the friendly American people who are represented by a distinguished man who deserves to be in this position,” King Abdullah said, presenting the president with a large gold medallion known as the King Abdul Aziz Collar.

“Shoukran,” Mr. Obama replied, which in Arabic means “thank you.”


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