WASHINGTON — Barack Obama sought from Day One of his presidency to "reboot" America's damaged relationship with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. With this week's Mideast trip and long-promised speech in Cairo, he takes a perilous leap into the effort.
Tensions fueled 30 years ago when Iranians overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were stoked white-hot by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the creation of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Perceptions of President George W. Bush as intent on imposing his views on the world and indifferent to the suffering of Muslims in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere, only widened the gap.
And America's longstanding support for Israel has always been an obstacle to improved relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
To Obama, who leaves Tuesday, the success of the struggle against Islamic extremists is at stake. This fight stretches throughout the Muslim world, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where largely ungoverned border areas are a haven for al-Qaida, and beyond.
Experts and regular citizens alike believe Obama has a chance to make headway during visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But only a small one.
"I'm not sure he can set a dramatically different tone," said Mitchell Bard with the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. "There is a limit to what he can do."
For one thing, U.S. foreign policy supporting Israel and the war on terror — both chief sources of anti-American sentiment — is unlikely to change, although Obama has recently stepped up pressure on Israel to reach out to Palestinians. In a Monday interview with NPR, Obama again urged Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and pledged his support for a Palestinian state. At the same time, Obama called for Palestinians to "end the incitement that understandably makes Israelis so concerned."
But it is a fresh approach out of Washington, not merely appealing words, that Muslims most want.
"We hope that the speech will be positive and of great benefit to both Arab and Islamic nations," said Najla Abdul-Jalil, a resident of a Shiite district in Baghdad. "But as a citizen, I cannot pin hope on it. America has the same policy it had for years."
Obama could make progress, however, if he can put American relations with Muslim nations on more traditional footing, where disagreements persist but are dealt with openly and don't stand in the way of cooperation in other areas.
The way to do that, said Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is for Obama to use his rhetorical gifts and history of tackling difficult issues with reason to frame U.S. policy so that Muslims could merely agree to disagree with the U.S.
"For a lot of audiences out there, moving them from violent hostility to grudging disapproval would be a tremendous victory," he said.
The speech in Cairo follows a steady trickle of attention paid to the Muslim world, starting with Obama's inauguration, when he was sworn in using his full name — Barack Hussein Obama — and promised Muslims he would "seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
He immediately banned harsh methods of interrogating terrorist suspects, released memos detailing the use of and legal justification for the techniques under the Bush administration, and promised to close Guantanamo Bay within a year. He gave his first formal interview to an Arabic-language television network, telling Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, "Americans are not your enemy." He telephoned friendly Arab leaders within days of taking office and sent special envoy George J. Mitchell to the Middle East on a "listening tour."
On the other side of the ledger for Muslims, Obama is sending more troops into Afghanistan and has continued U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan by pilotless planes that kill civilians. He has backed indefinite detention of terror suspects who can neither be tried nor released, supported revised military tribunals and fought the court-ordered release of prisoner-abuse photos.
Still, personal attributes — his father and grandfather were Muslims and he lived as a child in Muslim Indonesia — and the early policy moves give the president a chance to at least be heard in the halls of Muslim power as well as on the street.
But delicate rhetoric will be required during the remarks at Cairo University, a center of student anti-government protests, and co-hosted by the Al-Azhar mosque, home to a revered institution for Islamic study.
Aides say Obama doesn't intend to ignore that the country has been ruled by the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak since 1981; he will speak gently about the need for a better democratic model and greater human and civil rights.
A centerpiece of the speech, the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute, poses challenges as well. Many Arabs want Obama to lay out a detailed peace plan, including demands for Jerusalem. That's not likely, although Obama repeated his discomfort with the current situation in his NPR interview.
The U.S.-Israeli relationship, he said, hasn't been "as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction — the current trajectory — in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests."
The last-minute addition of the stop in Saudi Arabia is an important nod to the nation which, as home to the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca, is considered the guardian of the Islamic faith. The president would like to see more Arab support for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and for overtures to Israel, and Saudi Arabia's backing would be a linchpin to those efforts.