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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A Regional Discussion on President Obama's Cairo Speech

FPC Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
June 4, 2009

9:30 A.M., EDT

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. We are here today with [Senior State Department Official]. He is currently serving as [title withheld]. We have a considerable amount of time with [Senior State Department Official]. We are on background speaking with a Senior State Department Official, and we will discuss the President’s Cairo speech and what it means for U.S. policy.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good morning and thank you for coming. It’s obviously a very important speech and also, in some capacity, I think of it not just as an American and as an academic and as, now, a U.S. Government official, but also an American Muslim in terms of how it gets reflected in – because it’s an outreach, obviously, to the global Muslim community and Muslims everywhere.

It’s been, obviously, a very much anticipated speech. It’s clearly part of a longer process of engaging the Muslim world that I think the President has very importantly engaged in. It is the second one he’s given after the one in Ankara. And if you count also the YouTube Nowruz message that was directed at Iran, it’s the third important directed message that he’s given to the Muslim world.

I know there is often – as a buildup to this particular speech, there was a lot of focus about what policies it would address. But I think the way we should think about it is that these series of speeches themselves are a very major policy shift for the United States.

In other words, if you were to compare it with the previous administration, very soon after 9/11, it followed a very narrow relationship with the Muslim world, which was “Either you’re with us or you’re against us; there is no gray area in between.” And in that context also, the burden was put on the Muslim world by and large to not only cooperate with the United States but to reform itself, become democratic, change its religious outlook.

This Administration has made a very conscious decision to move away from that kind of posturing, and I think that’s very important to note. That’s a policy decision. Now, before you get involved, I think, in very specifics of policy, you have to create a context in which you discuss things with other people. And this Administration has made this decision that it does not want to deal with the Muslim world, with Muslims everywhere with – at least in countries in the context of “You’re with us or you’re against us,” and it’s either black or white, but rather, from a very different position.

And I think before getting into the nitty-gritty of Arab-Israeli conflict, Afghanistan, Pakistan, economic issues, trade issues, all sorts of things, it is investing a considerable amount of, I think, effort in redefining the context in which those discussions take place.

I think one ought to take the Administration’s position on that this is an approach based on mutual respect and mutual trust seriously. That’s clearly policy initiative of redefining, if you would, your interlocutors in an engagement for yourself as well as for the American public. And I think it’s an effort that’s going to be going forward, and there would be – probably there would have to be a deepening of this relationship of trust and of this redefining relations with the Muslims everywhere around the world, in the coming time period along the line – as well as also initiations on specific policy issues, which we also saw the President begin talking about in Cairo on the Arab-Israeli issue, on women, on democracy, on a host of other issues all the way down to exchange of students and scholars and the like.

I’m not going to talk too long. I’d much rather hear what you think, what kind of a reaction you’ve been getting from your audience, and see where you want to take the discussion.



QUESTION: Well, I think personally, I liked the speech. It was broad and very inclusive. And he had a tough job to do because we know that the Muslim world is a very diverse world. It’s not just one monolithic entity. You’re talking about different languages, different cultures, in some cases different versions of Islam, theologies.

But you just made a statement about this – the difference – the key difference that you point out between the two administrations, the previous administration and this Administration, that this Administration is not about just black and white with the Muslim world; it’s not just against us or with us. But in the policy, on the – I’m from Pakistan. And there has been a lot of talk of talking to the extremists, to the Taliban. And when the Pakistanis have tried to implement that, quote-un-quote, the “peace treaty” with the Taliban in the Swat region – and when Mr. Zardari was here, the Administration was very hard on them, and it was when they started the operation while the President was here in this country, the prime minister had to go out, like 11:30 p.m. in the night to hold an emergency conference and announce the operation.

So do you still believe that in practice, this Administration is not really about that policy that it has to be black and white, you know, you have – there’s no room? When you say this is not against us or with us, what do you really mean? What are those gray areas that this Administration is going to outline and formulate in terms of policy and action in the near future?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s a good point. I mean, as you said, the Middle East and the Muslim world is a very diverse and large area. The United States has many different points of contact. If you calculate all the way from Indonesia to Nigeria, there are some important areas, from trade, to wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, to serious issues like nuclear proliferation with Iran, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, et cetera.

Each of these are very complex issues. And I think that part of the challenge for the Administration is how to, you know, create a single line between these different ones. There are different actors involved. Some of them, like the Arab-Israeli issue, are very old, if you would, issue areas that have to be resolved.

The most important thing is that – and this Administration is still young. We’re still, you know, within the first hundred or so days with – in some areas, it’s just completed policy review. Even if you looked at the case of the Middle East, it was no longer than two weeks since the Prime minister of Israel and the Palestinian Authority leader were here. And this is the first time the President actually has had substantive discussions with two of the major Arab players in this conflict, which are King Abdullah and Hosni Mubarak. The Administration is beginning to sort of articulate the direction in which it wants to go, but we have to give it some time to actually formulate concrete steps.

The Cairo speech is – what it says about where the Administration would like to go is that, you know, as we deal with these complex issues – I mean, the problems are not going to go – are not going away that quickly. I mean, even in Afghanistan-Pakistan, this war is – goes back to 2001. Its tempo has changed. It’s – it was more intense, less intense, then it is becoming more intense. The question is, in what kind of a context do we deal with this? And the – alternately, you know, going forward, how Pakistan and the United States work together in this context.

We would like to see that this would not be – would be in – around concrete issues that the two countries face and want to deal with, which has to be around the issues of, you know, not only stability and security for both countries, but also prosperity, development and stabilization of Pakistan.

I believe there are serious differences with the old administration. I mean, when this Administration has now made it very clear that it wants to see Pakistan democratic, it intervened in a way to prevent the collapse of, if you would, movement in that direction after the March 15th developments in Pakistan.

And I think, you know, the Swat issue is not just about – purely about Islam and extremism. First of all the Administration makes a difference between the hard-line extremists, and this is very clear in the Cairo speech and the Muslims as a whole. The problem was not that – it was not just – it was not the issue of the sharia law in Swat. It was the fact that the Taliban had taken it upon themselves to execute it. And then there was the worry that if a non-state actor dominates in a part of a country, then it could be destabilizing to the entire process.

But as far as the Cairo speech is concerned, you know, if this effort succeeds by the Administration of building greater trust between the two sides, it’s going to make it much easier to deal with issues that has happened in Swat.

If the relation – if the people in the Muslim world understand that this President genuinely has respect and would like the Muslims to trust him, and he’s reaching out at least initially by putting this idea on the table that, you know, I come from a background and a world view that believes that we have to respect one another, and I would like you to trust that sentiment on my part, then all of these issues would be easier for the Muslims and the United States to deal with.

But the President – we’re too early – it’s too early on and it’s too much to ask that, you know, we’ll be able to solve very, very complex, decade-long issues such as the Arab-Israeli Conflict, such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict, such as Iran’s nuclear program merely through, you know, a set of speeches and this quickly. But I think the point is just to put these in the right context.

You had a question?

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: How are you? Nice to see you.

QUESTION: Nice to see you, too. Surprised with – this is on background, right?

MODERATOR: We’re on background, yes.

QUESTION: I want to ask you – you know Iran more than anyone else probably, you know, and understand – where do you see the areas of differences that President Obama has mentioned in the Cairo speech on Iran, and how do you think it might play out, the elections? And the next one, do you think the tone – the new tone of this Administration will embolden the moderates, or is it too early to make such a judgment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, moderates, by – I guess you mean the reformist side. I think it does, because to the extent that the President is able to convince people in the Middle East, and Iranians included, that he is serious about this outreach, about the unclenching the fist, it does create – in many countries, it may generate, not just with Iranians, but it could also with Palestinians, it could do with – you know, segments of Pakistani society, it could do maybe with segments of Lebanese who say, well, you know, if he’s serious, maybe some policy options or some visions of the future that we had written off can be taken seriously again. And with these Iranians, I can tell that even moderates used to say during – that at times, that, you know, it’s futile to try to engage because the United States may not be serious in wanting to engage.

Now you have an Administration that is now, through these speeches and outreaches, is making a concerted effort to convince the Muslim world as a whole that it is serious about engagement, that it’s serious about trust building. And I think, you know, you gradually are going to have Muslims respond. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be policy differences, to your point. Policy differences will be there. But it is a big difference with believing that your counterpart is actually serious and sincere as opposed to saying that no, these are just words.

I can say that the President – I don’t know about the reaction on the street in Iran yet to the Cairo speech, but the President’s Nowruz speech was very well received by the Iranians on multiple levels, and it did create certain dynamism. I mean, I think generally they – those Iranian electors who maybe are fence sitting would seriously consider that if they put forward a president in Iran that would facilitate dialogue, that this is the right time, because it looks like the American Administration is much more forthcoming in terms of engagement.

QUESTION: Can we --

MODERATOR: We’ll go here and then we’ll come to you. Yes.

QUESTION: Where do you see Turkey in this picture? Is this a bridge for you or is it a part of Muslim world?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, this is – my own experience has been that, you know, the Turks may look at this -- look at their own role one way. The Muslims look at Turkey a different way. In other words, even if the Turks don’t see themselves as a model or a bridge, it’s very clear to everybody else that Turkey is a very important country.

And there are two things that we’ve seen. One is that Turkey’s involvement in the Muslim world, and particularly Middle East, has grown. It has mediated between Israel and Syria. It has become involved in Iraq. It has now very broad trade relations with many Muslim countries in the Arab world as well as South Asia.

And at the same time, the President’s very first visit was to Turkey, and there in his speech he said that, you know, he would like Turkey to play that role and he clearly sees the combination of democracy and moderate Islam in Turkey as something that the United States could latch onto and that it’s good for others to look to as well.

So I think it’s very clear that Turkey is likely to play an important role as a – at least a reference point for where we want to end up down the road in a -- and sort of I’m talking very broadly in the relations between the West and the Muslim world. Now that again -- not talking about specific issues between the two countries, but in the context of what the Administration is trying to achieve right now.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on this?


QUESTION: You said something about Turkey. Let me just double-check what I heard. You said that Turkey would be like where we would like to finish or see? Is it like as a symbol, as a model or --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, actually, a lot of Muslims even themselves are thinking about it. In other words, if you thought that you would want to have governments in the region that, you know, are democratic, are investing in economic development, have good relations with the West, and also do speak for the -- are not divorced from the Islamic culture and civilization, but rather have a relationship to it, you know, Turkey is probably the only case right now that can look at it and say it has been relatively successful in this regard. And as we find the right balance for right now between this particular government, between representing Muslim opinion in its own country but, you know, combined with democracy and fitting in the international order in a particular way.

Now, you know, the President made that very clear that Turkey is now well positioned to play an important role as a bridge between the West and Muslims everywhere. But also many Muslims do look at Turkey as an important reference point.

QUESTION: I’m just trying to understand what will be different now after the speech, or maybe what we’re going to (inaudible) from this Administration than the previous administration. Suppose it be like an Algerial-like situation, where an Islamist party seemed winning the election, and the West -- the United States reacted in a particular way which prevented that party from wining those elections.

If something like that happened in another Muslim country, how would the Administration react? And especially in Egypt (inaudible) democracy, can you see this Administration playing the role of a catalyst for holding an election in which the man who is ruling does not win with 99.99 percent votes?

In Pakistan, are we going to see a new approach, a new reconciliation with some of the Taliban or al-Qaida or the religious parties or whoever? Are we going to see some serious moves or improved relations between India and Pakistan, given India’s opposition to any third-party mediation? Are we going to see a serious effort for freeezing settlements in Israel, in Israeli-occupied areas of the Palestinian territory? Are we going to see a serious move toward the creation of a two-state -- the creation of two states?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, you know, those specific policy issues, some of them already are in the sort of, if you would, beginning phases. For instance, after the visit of Arab Israeli leaders to Washington, you have the beginning of a policy discussion.

You know, specific policy issues I think ultimately will be judged by the merits of events on the ground. But I think what’s most important is that this President, and even if you look at the Cairo speech and even the speech before it, is very clearly trying to separate sort of a blanket, you know, talk of Islam from the merits of individual cases. I mean, he’s making a very distinct -- even in this speech -- separation between what he doesn’t like about extremism from Islam.

So I think, you know, going forward, and I’m not talking about just the next year -- so this administration would like to set the foundation for an American policy going forward say half a century from now where issues in the Muslim world are decided and judged based on the merits of those issues, not based on the, quote, unquote “Islam.”

So if you have a political party that is Islamic but is peaceful, it’s not hostile, it’s not supporting violence, it has a proper program, that it would be judged on the basis of those issues. And vice versa, you may end up with secular parties who may be following the kinds of extremist or violent or anti-democratic postures that would be harmful to American policy, and it would react adversely to it.

But you know, it’s going to take time. You know, the development of democracy in the Middle East is going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. But I think the tenor of the Administration’s decision right now is that it will get involved in a lot of these issue areas you mentioned seriously. It’s already declared its intention that it’s going to get involved in the Arab-Israeli process seriously. He’s appointed a senior envoy to the process literally as soon as the President took over, that he wants to get involved in the Afghanistan-Pakistan issue in a new way, first of all, by appointing a senior civilian envoy, unlike the way Iraq was managed, where there was no such office in Washington. It was led by the Pentagon, by and large.

But the key issue is that the President is increasingly saying, if you listen to him, that I understand the problems, and I have an opinion about the problems, and I’ll have an approach about solving the problems; but I understand that I don’t want to have a civilizational approach to solving these problems, I want to separate Islam from extremism, I don’t want to paint all Muslims with the same brush, I’m going to judge them based on their behavior.

I mean, when he exhorts to Hamas that it needs to do these sets of things, he’s basically setting certain specific behavioral standards that he says that, you know, is expected of any interlocutor in the peace process, that it has to cease use of violence, it has to agree to all the past agreement that have been made by the Palestinians and other Arabs, it has to probably subscribe to the Arab Peace Process that the United States is endorsing, and it also has to recognize Israel. Now, it’s Hamas’s choice whether it wants to do these or not. But the President didn’t want to start by saying because Hamas is Islamic, that’s the beginning and end of all discussion, and I think that’s a clear policy decision.

I mean, people are, I think, focusing too much right now on secular policy decisions of the United States, what he’s going to do in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine and with Iran. Those are all valid questions, but there are much more complex, long-run questions we have to solve. But what is very new, and the President is outlining, is that the United States does not want to approach these issues from a civilizational viewpoint, which is very clearly the approach of the previous administration. And the previous administration tried to later on back away from this, but it did not have credibility in the Muslim world. Nobody really believed that the administration was not painting all Muslims and all of their problems with the same brush.

This administration is investing considerable amount of time and political capital in convincing the Muslim world, all Muslims everywhere, that it’s going to deal with secular political problems with a very serious, hard-nosed approach, but that it clearly does not – is not going to adopt a civilizational approach to Muslims.

QUESTION: Does the President think that the Palestinian problem is a political problem or a religious problem? If it is a political problem, it has to be solved politically. If it is a religious problem, it will be, as he said a Jewish state, which is not accepted by the Palestinians and the Arabs because it will not give a fair solution to the political problem because it will limit the return -- the right of return of the Palestinians and other things.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I cannot speak for the details of this policy because it’s --

QUESTION: No, no, it’s just to analyze.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Right. Because this is – I mean, this is Senator Mitchell – Special Envoy Mitchell that --

QUESTION: No, just to analyze what he said--.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Right. I think, you know, it’s always been the policy of the United States to look at this issue from a political angle. The actors on the ground, or at least some non-state actors on the ground, on both sides or on three sides, sometimes also some Christian non-state actors have looked at this as a religious issue. They use religion also in the Muslim world has become -- for a variety of reasons, this has become an important -- has a religious dimension to it.

But beyond religion, providing maybe a basis for understanding between the two sides, the hard questions are secular. It’s about land, it’s about security, it’s about legitimate or illegitimate use of violence, it’s about war, it’s about peace. And even issues of right of return, etc., even though they may be put in a religious context, ultimately are about very specific facts and figures, number of people, what are their rights when they come back, who gets the land when they do, who has to move, etc. And in that sense, it’s not very different from any other very difficult conflict you have to solve where you have to find a balance of power. And the conflict only gets solved if both sides believe that a certain agreement is in their national interest.

We’re not there yet. In other words, there are wide varieties between Israeli position and how Israel sees its national security and what the Palestinians are willing to agree to. And then, you know, Israel -- Arab-Israeli conflict is complicated because it’s not between two actors alone. Some of the more powerful actors are not even a party to the conflict. You know, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, they’re all in some way parties to this conflict. And we’ve seen this happen in the past.

The failures of previous peace processes is not because of religion, it’s because of failure to achieve a deal that both sides would see in their interest to subscribe to. So we’ve had limited ceasefire deals, limited agreements between Arabs and Israelis going back to the 1971 Sinai Accord, but they have not really finalized the conflict.

Now, I would say during the Bush Administration, and partly maybe everybody had a share in this, the issue became – not that the issue became religious, the interpretation of the issue became much more religious. So particularly among many in the American public, people looked at the Palestinian-Israeli issue as a civilizational issue between Islam and the West. I think the Administration thinks that that’s not helpful to the solution of this problem, that ultimately it’s a secular problem. It does impact people on both sides who are religious, who have – after all, this is the Holy Land. There is mutually sometimes exclusive claims to territory, within Jerusalem itself, at least.

But at the end of the day, that the Arab-Israeli issue is a secular issue. The Administration has to solve it through diplomacy, through engaging both sides, through coming up with a deal that everybody would be able to live with and would see in their interest. But again, the whole point is to move away from that kind of a making this issue into a Islam versus the West or Islam versus Judaism issue.

And I agree; I mean, it’s going to be – because this, of all issues, involves religion much more, it’s going to be a difficult issue. But even, you know, if you look at the demands on the Arab world and demands in Israel, or the expectation that existed from this speech, in the Arab world – and correct me if I’m wrong – the expectations were not religious. The expectations were very secular. They’re looking for a path to peace that involves a specific proposal on, you know, security, land, settlements, you know, whatever else is on the table. It’s not an ecumenical exercise.

And so I think, you know, to some degree, that, you know, the Cairo speech also was trying to be serious about this issue, but it also was trying to separate that from a larger engagement with the Muslim world.

QUESTION: Can I follow up? Can you analyze the part he spoke about Jerusalem? Explain (inaudible) nothing is clear what he meant to say?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Before the meeting, I perused through the speech. I did see the part on Jerusalem. I think it is important, but I don’t think he was driving at – and maybe I’m wrong on this – on specifying something very concrete.

MODERATOR: No, he wasn’t specifying concrete. I think, if you look at the imagery of the speech, that he held up two images: one, a Jerusalem shared by three faiths; and a peace between the children of Abraham, with Jerusalem being the symbol of that peace, where the three faiths are living together side by side, and very often peacefully. And so I think if you take the image of the children of Abraham and then look at the actions on the ground in Jerusalem where three faiths can live side by side, we know, of course, there have been difficulties. There has been, you know, Christians in Jerusalem who have had tensions with their neighbors over religious sites, as well as Jews and Muslims. That – I believe that is the direction of the speech, very much looking at how peace can be sustained as opposed to actually proposing any final status issue.

QUESTION: They said --

QUESTION: But the political side is ignored on Jerusalem.

MODERATOR: Well, the speech was not trying to address the political side. That, I think, has been part of [Senior State Department Official]’s --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I agree. I mean, you know, I think the speech was – this series of speech which is beginning with the Ankara speech, the Nowruz speech to the Iranians, the Cairo speech, are not supposed to be policy speeches. They are policy speeches to the extent that I think the Administration’s great effort to change the nature of engagement of Muslim world is itself a big policy initiative. And I think this president has understood that before you get to the nuts and bolts, you need to have a very different context and you have to create that context. And that context is one that the other side ought to trust you, and that you cannot be – you cannot go back to the table and discuss the same thing without approaching it differently.

So I think they are not trying to get immediately into a hard question, because if he actually did that, the other effort he’s trying to achieve would be lost. I mean, the same is true of his Nowruz speech. He gave very broad outline of he would like Iran to enter the world community and would like Iran to stop enriching uranium. But that was it. The rest of it was directed at trust building with the Iranian people and the Iranian Government. I think the political things will come down the line.

I think you had a question. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Actually, possible two questions. In the recent week, we witnessed intensive diplomatic activity on behalf of the Israeli officials and in Washington because there was some tension, and they were trying somehow to lower it, and I think Defense – Minister of Defense Ehud Barak called for less public discord because it was kind of embarrassing as a new government. And some Israeli officials even said that after the speech, we will see maybe lower tone on settlements, because – you know, because this Administration understands it’s a new government. So first of all, do you think it will happen, like indeed the tone will be lower and there will be less pressure maybe at least in the next few months?

And the second one, how do you intend to measure success of changing dynamics, you know, in relationship with the Muslim world? You know, when do you expect something (inaudible) because I think what most reports today had very low expectations level of the American (inaudible). I think only 28 percent, they said believed that in the next year somehow the relations with the Muslim world will be improved (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, about the first one, at least, you know, because the President was going to the Arab world and because he was talking in Cairo, the Arab-Israeli issue would be in the public eye. And as you mentioned, it’s because only recently Prime Minister Netanyahu was here, so I think now that we have Cairo, it’s much more probably possible that, you know, people will get down to actually crafting what might be the roadmap to discussions. And I think that might be – is something that diplomats will take over, and diplomats, by definition, will do these things much more secretly and much more quietly.

So – but as far as I can tell, you know, and I think, you know, within – even in the Cairo speech, the President didn’t go into a great deal of detail. Basically, most of what he said was trying to create a set of expectations of both sides before they get to the table. So there was not – there was not much in terms of specifics.

I think your point is well taken. You know, why there is such a low expectation of improvement with the Muslim world is because, in the eyes of the American public, we’re coming up at about eight years of a freeze in which there has been no movement on Arab-Israeli issue, number one. You’ve had growing confrontation with Iran during the Bush Administration. You have had two ongoing wars in the region that have been in the American public mind. And you’ve had a lot of focus on extremism and al-Qaida in public discussion.

And I think, you know, that’s the whole point, that I think the President very early on understood that he cannot get anything positive done if you are operating in this kind of an environment where the American public distrusts the Muslim world and has negative opinion of it, and the Muslim world has distrust in United States and has negative opinion of it. No leader in the region – let’s take the case of Arab-Israeli issue – is likely to take risks which are necessary for a compromise in this kind of an environment.

So that’s why I think the President understood that, you know, before you actually deal with these issues, you have to change this kind of a environment. You have to get the American public to think of the Muslim world differently, not just about the conflicts differently, but about the Islam as a religion, Muslims, the future. And you have to get the Arabs and Muslims to think about the United States differently, because even if you make marginal improvement, even if the Americans go from 28 percent to 38 percent, and the Arabs go from, you know, whatever number you have in different countries marginally higher, political leaders would have a lot more room to maneuver in order to solve many important things. Whether it’s in Pakistan or whether it’s in Bangladesh or whether it’s in Indonesia or whether it’s in Egypt, there’d be much more ability to work with these issues.

And then when they come at the table, if you have greater degree of trust, it’s much more possible to arrive at some kind of an agreement that then, you know, would put the Middle East, the Muslim world, and the United States in a completely different place.

So you know, and I reiterate this, that, you know, obviously, a lot of the media around the world, as well as in the United States, is immediately trying to judge the endgame, whether it’d be possible to have a Palestinian-Israeli peace signed on the Rose Garden in a year, Iran suspend its nuclear weapons, you know, Pakistan and Afghanistan sign a pact between them and then with India, and you know, it’d be all done. Probably not. It’s very difficult to see all of that happening at the same time.

But there is no chance of forward movement in that direction unless you address these trust issues, unless you change the vocabulary and narrative of the Bush time period. And I think the Administration understood this very clearly, and much of the effort that the President has put into these speeches and the amount of political capital and amount of also risk he’s taking domestically in addressing a lot of these issues is because that is policy step number one. Before you get to all the other issues that we talk about, that’s a necessary step that, you know, we have to take in order to change the environment in which then these issues would be addressed.

MODERATOR: I think we have time for two more questions. Joyce has been waiting.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we can go a little bit longer.

MODERATOR: Yeah, okay.

QUESTION: I just – I’m noticing there is no word “terrorism” in this whole speech, or “terrorist.” Even when talking about 9/11, it says “attacks.” I mean, is that part of the – not to – to avoid generalities in addressing the Arabs?

And also, in approaching Iran, what do you think the Administration – what does the Administration mean when they want Iran to play, you know, a good regional role, but not a destabilizing regional role? What role do you foresee for Iran playing in the region? Yeah, and just --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The U.S. demands of Iran are not new, aside from suspension of nuclear activity. The United States has wanted Iran to play positive role in Lebanon (inaudible) Hezbollah. It has wanted it to stop arming or funding Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians. It has wanted it particularly to abandon the very hostile rhetoric that the current Iranian president has adopted vis-à-vis not only Israel, but also sometimes other issues. And then the United States has complained about Iranian role in Iraq, literally since 2003, of supporting militia, special groups, Sadrist movement, et cetera.

So I mean, those are seen by the United States as being negative roles. And then many Arab countries are also worried about Iran’s intentions in the region. And therefore, the model that the United States would like for Iran to follow is that it would have constructive relations with its neighbors, that it would take steps to allay their fears, that, you know, the neighbors would feel comfortable with Iranian role in the region, and that it would, you know, not invest in militias, whether it’s in Iraq, Lebanon, or among the Palestinians. And in some of these areas, the United States has seen Iran’s role as actually contributing to the conflicts, in Lebanon, for instance, in Israel – Arab-Israeli issue.

So it’s a very clear message that – you know, that there is not opposition to Iran or Iranian people as a civilization or as a country, but there is very, very serious concern about Iranian – particular Iranian policy.

And then the President also mentioned the issue of nuclear proliferation and the imperative that that does not continue.

Now, vis-à-vis the word “terrorism,” again, I think partly the President did not focus on a sort of a generic term that, you know, has had – that may have different meaning to different populations in the Arab world as well as the United States, but focused on what is it specifically that the United States finds objectionable in extremist behavior, which is – and he went over this – killing innocent people, more of whom are actually Muslim than not. So you know, rather than use these generic terms of “terrorism,” which, you know, in some ways may dehumanize this issue and actually has become, by and large, sometimes a divisive term, and very specifically said that, you know, people who kill innocent people, whether it’s in Arab world or whether it’s in Pakistan, et cetera, and often kill more Muslims; that is what the United States has an objection to.

And again, I think the change of language is quite significant here. I mean, people all the time say language doesn't matter, actions matter. But I think that’s a mistaken issue. You begin with language. And this President clearly has gone an extra step in trying to be careful with language that Muslims find objectionable. And that show of respect is important.

You know, there is a lot of pressure often for quick fixes, but I would give as a counterpoint that, you know, before the United States improved its relations with China, it engaged in almost two years of virtually unilateral change of language, attitude, and action before the Chinese engaged the United States. And it had to begin with language. It had to begin with how you refer to China, how you refer to actions, et cetera. So, you know, I mean, obviously, one would have to wait and see how this is reflected, but I think the language issue is very important.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on the issue of language, please? My impression – I believe I am right, that the speech was loaded with religion expressions. How do you look – how do you --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, but in a very different way. When President Bush referred to the Koran, he was preaching Koran maybe back to Muslims. I think the President approached these religious issues much more sort of respectfully and with a lighter touch. He wasn’t – he used the Koran and the Torah and the Bible, particularly at the end, to underscore that he has respect for religion, that he believes in their value, that he sees those values as his own values or as Christian values or that also – that, in other words, in a sense of embracing and including Islamic messages into global world discussion of values. He wasn’t using religion selectively to preach back to Muslims. And I think that’s a very subtle shift. You know, there’s been plenty of references to the Koran or to the religious language said by President Bush, but it was always to, you know, tell them something very specific, that, you know, your religion says you do this, but not taking the religion seriously.

QUESTION: Was it a long process to decide if he says in Arabic “Assalaamu alaykum”?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, no. I mean, you know, I think it’s a decision made a long time ago when he said to Iranians “Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak,” which means Happy New Year. It was a massive, you know, winner in Iraq. Not that he – you see, that’s the whole point, not that he – you see, that’s the whole point. I mean, if the President of the United States spends 15 minutes practicing saying it, he thinks it’s important enough, I mean, Assalaamu alaykum is much more ubiquitous than Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak. I mean, that took a lot of – you know, I would say, practice to get those three phrases. (Laughter.) You know, because it’s not in the President’s or anybody’s conscience. At least, I’m sure Assalaamu alaykum was heard multiple times as a child in Indonesia.

But at the end of the day, the Iranians got it, that aside from anything else, you know, this is a very different approach to us. He’s taking this speech on YouTube very seriously. I think, you know, the President understands very well that respect is not a word; you have to earn it, you have to get it. And I think the fact that is important for Muslims – and I say this as, you know, with the way I would reflect that as a private citizen – the amount of effort and political capital he’s putting into these series of speeches, the fact that it’s actually an ongoing process in his mind – it began in Ankara, he goes to Cairo and is going to somewhere else – suggests that he understands that this is not just, you know, a one-time deal, that he understands that building trust requires an effort, it requires the other side understanding that you get their values, that you’ve spent some time looking at them, that you use them properly. And I think the Koranic verses he used and the way he used them, I thought was with a sufficient light touch that he was not preaching to the Muslims.

QUESTION: On a different --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And I think that’s very key. That means – there’s a very big difference, I would like to underscore, between saying that, you know, I’ve read your values and I think they’re relevant to my thinking, and rather than say that I asked my speechwriter to come with some Arabic phrase that preaches my words back to you. This is a very big difference.

QUESTION: On a different subject, you touched a little bit on the feelings and how Muslim world looks at American and how American looks at the Muslim world. I hope my question makes a little sense, but how much –


QUESTION: How much do you think that polls in the coming weeks or months will be key to announce policies and restart negotiations?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think polls would be very important in whatever countries we can look at them and see and actually trust those polls. On the Arab world, we have a lot better polls than we have on Iran or on Pakistan or on Bangladesh, et cetera, at least in these zones of conflict I’m speaking. And the polls are not as easy to read. I mean, you could look at a poll that says majority of Iranians support, you know, nuclear enrichment, but majority of Iranians also believe President Obama is absolutely sincere about what he said. That would make for some complex policy-making approaches, when you have polls that are not, you know, unilinear.

I believe going forward that gradually, you’re going to see a sense of polling in the Muslim world that’s going to give the United States a lot more latitude. It doesn’t mean that the Muslims tomorrow morning are going to come out and say, you know, we abandoned everything we thought and we’re going to agree with you on everything. That’s not the way it works in the world. But you’re going to see a lot more latitude given to this president and his policy. And that is – space is everything in diplomacy.

QUESTION: I understand this point, but one just further detail: Would good polls trigger an announcement or a policy announcement or starting negotiation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Absolutely. Or that polls will allow much bolder steps taken on all sides. For instance, Arab leaders also look at their own polls. Like all politicians, they will react to them.

QUESTION: They do?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, on some things. On some things they do. In other words – on some things they do. In other words, if they – I mean, you know, the – let me put it this way: For instance, the resistance movement in the region had banked on the fact that – of unpopularity of the United States and anti-Americanism and the fact that the U.S. policies are not going to be even able to get out of the gate. If they begin to see that you have even a slight shift of attitude, they would have to recalculate.

I mean, there’s a reason why al Qaida is so aggressively challenging this President, because they very well understand that he may shift the situation on the ground.

MODERATOR: Question?

QUESTION: Well, I just want to take a step back and ask you specifically about promoting the democracy or promoting human rights. There’s just – there’s a view that as the Administration tries to get closer to the Arab world, to the Muslim world, as the President makes this speech – and you mentioned his references to the specific action (inaudible) region -- there’s a view that the Administration might be putting the issue of human rights on the back burner. Do you think that’s happening here, sort of the Administration is looking for general cooperation from countries in the region and putting the issue of human rights on the back burner?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think so. I think this President has talked about – I mean, the very fact that he talked about democracy here and in Turkey, he talked also about similar issues, I don’t believe that’s the case. I think you have – compare – you know, we have to also look that the previous administration talked a lot about democracy. And it created – you had a situation in which there was cynicism developed in the Arab world, in particular, but also the rest of the Muslim world, about democracy and what America means by democracy. And the United States pushed very hard, very quickly on this issue, and then ended up not following it up in Pakistan or in the Arab world with supporting democratic movements or supporting dictators.

So I think we really don’t understand that you know, you have to first deal with the mood on the ground. You have to – before you begin to push very hard under the democracy issue, you have to create this sense between yourself and the previous administration. You have to get back also the trust of the people in what we mean by democracy.

The U.S. has clearly in many places now begun to play a role without sort of doing the advertisement that the previous administration did. I mean, look at the case of Pakistan. I think it’s very instructive. You know, on March 15 when, you know, there was almost a collapse of democratic process because of internal bickering in Pakistan, the U.S. intervened very aggressively. And the Secretary of State, Ambassador Holbrooke, you know, were on the telephone with everybody, you know. And then, you know, the ambassador went before Congress and very specifically said that the United States, you know, is fully supportive of civilian democratic government in Pakistan and does not want that to change. And if there were to be a coup -- the very exact words of Ambassador Holbrooke that if there were to be a coup, that the United States would oppose it. Washington would oppose it.

Now, this was not at the level that the Bush Administration would have done it, which is, you know, very high level, lofty commitment to democracy and giving it in every speech, but in practice, not standing up in Pakistan for the democracy movement.

So this is almost a reverse. We’re not broadcasting this sort of a plan, but you’re going to see that this Administration’s going to get involved in similar situations. And also, you know, like everything else complicated in this region, we have to move in that direction in a way that is sustainable, doable, and with the trust of the population. We’re not going to get anything – I mean, I think this Administration is certainly not going to get done – anything seriously done in the Muslim world and particularly in the Arab world if you don’t have the certain trust of the Arab public in America’s intention.

QUESTION: Can I quickly just ask –

MODERATOR: I just want to – well, we’re going to come here, but I just want to, on the human rights and democracy front, point your attention to the President’s words on women’s rights.


MODERATOR: Where he weaves in the themes of human rights, democracy and development as part of women’s rights and how your nation can only prosper if you support these. I don’t think that that is a message that’s popular everywhere, including in this country, and therefore, for him to put that as one of the six categories, not a subcategory, I think answers your question.

Here and then here, yes.

QUESTION: What do – what reaction do you expect from the Muslim world now? What do you think should happen that will make you feel that this was worth the effort, now we can make further moves?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think – I think, you know, the Muslim world will look at what the President in Cairo, and then in conjunction with Ankara and his Nowruz speech, that he’s actually serious about changing the discussion, and that he’s actually serious – that there is a very different attitude about Muslims and the Muslim world.

Now, how do we translate that into policy changes and how do we benefit from this change of perception into getting a very different kind of result on Arab-Israel issue, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, is obviously something that the Muslim world will be watching. But you know, it takes two to tango. I mean, the Muslim world, on many of these issues, has to show up, whether it’s in the Palestinian issue or the – or in Iran, or on Afghanistan or on Iraq or on any other issue that comes up. Policies succeed if you have both sides working.

But I think there is no doubt that this President has gone the extra mile to push for the idea that there is a seriously different approach to the Muslim world and to a different context, a different conversation. And I think, you know, many Muslims, I think, have to note that one of the important audiences of what the President has said are Americans and Europeans, and also other non-Muslims. And I think what he has instructed the world is: I want you to think about the Muslim world differently, as well.

I mean, I remember when he spoke on Al Arabiya, you know, when he was rebroadcast on CNN – I mean, this is the first time the Americans were hearing their President refer to the Muslim world in a different way. When in Ankara he says that America is not at war with Islam, I mean, he’s also saying – his audience is global. These words get heard everywhere, and one of the issues that he’s raising is that the world as a whole should not think of the Muslim world as something separate, as a part of the world. And some of the Koranic verses he used in conjunction with the Torah, with the Bible, I think is directed at that level, the Muslims are inside the tent, they’re not outside the tent, and we have to deal with them in that way.

And that, I think, is also quite significant, and it’s not just the polling in the Muslim world we have to look at. It’s also polling in England, polling in the United States that will be quite critical, as well.

MODERATOR: Final question.


QUESTION: With your permission, can I bring up the K-word? Whenever you ask the Ambassador, Ambassador Holbrooke, about this issue, he says, I’m not going to say the K-word, the Kashmir issue.


QUESTION: What do you think? I mean, is it – it’s just swept aside? Is it gone from the vocabulary of the Presidential (inaudible)? During the campaign, he was very adamant about it. Even in the context of Afghanistan, he brought this up quite a few times. He still believes, or the Administration still believes that that issue, the Kashmir issue, is central to peace in that region?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, that’s beyond the scope of our discussion, but you know, ultimately, you know, we’re still in the very early phases of building up a lot of these policy arenas. You know, the United States is just becoming majorly engaged in the Pakistan-Afghanistan arena. I know the Pakistanis always think about this issue as very central, and so, you know, I cannot tell, you know, whether or not – where the Administration’s thinking on this issue will go. I don’t think even we have an ambassador on the ground yet in India.

QUESTION: Not yet.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I think it’s too premature. It’s too early to think about this.

But again, you know, backing away, you know, what is the value of the Cairo speech if the K-word appears somewhere down the road is that the United States can be a much better broker if it has trust of people on the ground, and also that if the President’s initiative can also have an impact on Indian public opinion about these issues.

So that’s what I’m saying. I don’t know what policies will come up, but that, you know, the whole value of the Cairo speech is to give us political capital (inaudible).

MODERATOR: And we recall India rejects third-party intervention into Kashmir, so (inaudible).

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming this morning. I think we’ve had a –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. Very nice to meet you all.

MODERATOR: Remember, we were on background as a senior State Department Official. Thank you.


MODERATOR: Thank you.