President Obama’s Middle East Expedition

Few stories have caught the scope of attention and imagination of both global public and press as President Barack Obama’s recent foray into the complicated landscape that is the Middle East.  Coverage and commentary was ubiquitous in all corners of the globe in the run-up to the president’s visit to Riyadh and Cairo and his speech at Cairo University. 

This Media Monitor Report examines the full scope of coverage of President Obama’s trip to the Middle East, his vaunted Cairo speech and the public diplomacy implementation and implications of the Middle East expedition by the new American president.

Setting the Stage

As President Obama’s visit to the Middle East drew closer, coverage – which was intense from the outset – hit a crescendo and punditry reached a fevered pitch as commentators of all stripes weighed in on what the American president would, should—or shouldn’t say, or do, on his trip.  A week prior to Obama’s Cairo visit, former U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy James Glassman teamed up with former Deputy National Security Advisor Juan Zarate to pen a prescription in the Boston Globe related to “What Obama Should Tell Muslims,” and how Obama could counter the narrative that the “West is at war with Islam” as he was “uniquely placed to recast the way American power and influence are viewed.”

As an announcement was made on May 28 that President Obama would be adding a stop to meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah prior to his Cairo visit, commentators in the West and Arab world picked through various reasons for the brief Saudi Arabia sojourn.  Middle East media authority, Mark Lynch, highlighted the various waves of responses to news of Obama’s Saudi stop in his Foreign Policy blog. He noted that responses first focused on the intra-Arab divisions and rivalries, then turned to the greater political significance his Riyadh meeting related to either gaining greater Saudi involvement or concessions in the Saudi/Arab Peace Initiative, or toward support for either engagement or confrontation with Tehran. This sentiment was echoed in the editorial by London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi‘s Chief Editor Abdel-Beri Atwan, who speculated that “something urgent prompted the changing of the program of the American president to consult with the officials of Riyadh before delivering his promised speech at Cairo University,” and pointed to either of the two aforementioned issues of Israel or Iran. [translation courtesy of Mideast Wire]

It seemed as if “Middle East experts” poured out of the woodwork to offer prognostications, suggestions and advice for President Obama. Among many others, the Brookings Institution and The New York Times published commentary from Middle East scholars and policy makers in the U.S. and Muslim world on what exactly Obama should say in Cairo, and what the region wanted to hear.  Meanwhile a plethora of articles appeared detailing the “great” or “high” expectations that the Muslim world had for his Cairo address, such as a Huffington Post piece by esteemed pollster James Zogby, as well as one by Dan Balz of The Washington Post.

Many were interested in discussing the framing of the trip, including FPA/CPD blogger Mark Dillen, who described the scene being constructed by Obama as he embarked on his visit. Obama also engaged in some scene-setting himself, conducting pre-departure interviews with Michele Norris and Steve Inskeep of NPR and Tom Friedman of The New York Times.

English language newspapers in the Middle East carried similar sentiments. Al Ahram Weekly chronicled excitement in Cairo, the Saudi Gazette discussed expectations in the region, while Lebanon’s Daily Star exhorted Obama to remember his Chicago roots while touring the region.

Even Al Qaeda chimed in, as Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al_Zawahiri sent audio message broadcasts denouncing Obama’s visit to their old home turf.  These messages brought consternation to Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent, who complained about the lack of flexing of U.S. public diplomacy machinery to counter Al Qaeda’s statements. However, to its credit, the U.S. public diplomacy apparatus was being harnessed in a different capacity.

In the immediate lead-up to the Cairo speech, innumerable stories appeared about the public diplomacy framework that the White House and State Department were employing to gain maximum exposure for President Obama’s address through social networks, SMS text messaging and webcast. In The Lede, The New York Times‘s blog, Jeff Zeleny noted that the Cairo speech would be “texted and tweeted, as well as highlighted on Facebook, Myspace and a host of other social networking sites.” He also noted that the speech was being translated by the State Department into at least 13 different languages and posted on a special Web site created in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English for people to receive the speech through text messages. Peter Maer of CBS News also noted the unprecedented Web outreach by the Obama administration, including the live stream of the Cairo speech on the White House Web site, and the video’s post on YouTube.

Obama’s Arrival in the Middle East

The arrival of President Obama was heralded in Saudi and Gulf regional papers, with the Saudi Gazette declaring “Welcome,” while the Gulf News noted the ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia dating back to Roosevelt and King Abdullah. The Gulf News also noted the cynicism in the region toward American foreign policy, but also indicated the rise of popularity in the region for the American president.  While a significant stop, the Saudi visit was really seen as an appetizer ahead of the Cairo call.

President Obama arrived in Cairo amid a palpable sense of excitement, as GlobalPost reported the streets were abuzz with excitement for the American leader’s visit. Leading into the Cairo visit, President Obama’s trip had been dominating the news cycle, getting tremendous coverage in the U.S. and in the Middle East; with the hype, hubbub and aforementioned public diplomacy distribution efforts, the Cairo speech was laden with anticipation. As noted the president’s speech was streamed live, and broadcast live by Al Jazeera and other regional Arab news networks.  Without delay, the White House made the transcript and video available, as the State Department pushed the social networking distribution as well as its normal channels of what was quickly termed “The New Beginnings” speech.

The Speech
Click here to see Obama’s full speech.

In what pundits noted as what “could be the most consequential presidential speech to a foreign audience in history, certainly since John Kennedy spoke to Berliners in 1963,” the 55-minute address by President Obama was met by a myriad of reactions across the globe, and in every form of media outlet.

The Washington Post editorialized that the “address in Cairo offered an eloquent case for American values and global objectives—and it looked to be a skillful use of public diplomacy in a region where America’s efforts to explain itself have often been weak.” USA Today noted that through the speech, the U.S. had gained ground in the war for hearts and minds, and that the first round of the battle of “Obama vs. Osama,” appeared to go to Barack. 

A major focus of the post-speech debate was on how Obama’s Cairo address would play throughout the world, and if it could create public diplomacy capital in locations in which America’s image had long been waning.  For regional reaction across the Middle East, The New York Times interviewed Arab students regarding the address to gauge their response. In a separate article, Michael Slackman of the Times commented, “Again and again, Muslim listeners said they were struck by how skillfully Mr. Obama appropriated religious, cultural and historical references in ways other American presidents had not,” as he discussed the various reactions that arose and the Middle East fault lines that speech tried to balance. The Christian Science Monitor noted that a sense of possibility was felt through the region. GlobalPost highlighted the diverse reactions to the speech in Dubai that came from locations as varied as labor camps and posh hotels. Meanwhile, the blogger site GlobalVoices aggregated the Middle East blogosphere reaction.  Many sources also noted that the optimism was shaded by a sense of “wait and see” and many discussed the need for action to follow the words offered, especially related to the issue of Palestine.

Media sources in the Middle East shared the diversity of opinion, as the Gulf Newsnoted that opinions in the Middle East ranged from inspired to critical to unimpressed. Al Jazeera  offered a “Vox Pop” mosaic of opinion from academics and students in the region. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s senior commentator Abdullah Schliefer discussed the moving emotions the speech and event elicited.  Both the Khaleej Times (UAE) and The Peninsula (Qatar) highlighted “the new beginning” aspect of Obama’s speech in editorials, while the Daily Star (Lebanon) called it “a significant departure from traditional politics” similar to Obama’s own election. The Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram termed the speech and summit “exceptional,” and stated, “Without any exaggeration, Obama’s address will go down in history as one of the most important documents conveying the desires of the West, led by the United States, for a different dealing with Islam and the Muslims after centuries of aggression and hatred.” [Translation courtesy of Mideast Wire]

Reactions Around the Globe

Media venues such as GlobalPost tracked opinions all over the world. Voice of America reported on how the story was received in West Africa and Kenya, as well as in Pakistan, where the latter two nations were ebullient by the words but awaited specific actions. In India, the speech was seen to strike a chord. The Los Angeles Times rounded up reactions from a skeptical barbershop in Baghdad to a family’s varied response in Tehran over the issues of women’s rights and comparisons in Istanbul to the president’s previous speech in Turkey, which had hosted Obama a few months earlier.

The Public Diplomacy Score

From a public diplomacy perspective, President Obama’s trip to the Middle East can be considered a clear success just for its shear capacity to capture global attention and imagination. For a clear anecdote of the vastness of coverage, as of June 9, a Google News search noted nearly 12,000 stories from various media outlets following the Cairo speech. Meanwhile, YouTube indicates that nearly 1 million viewers have watched the Cairo speech. Moreover, the ability for the White House and State Department to use new technology and new public diplomacy tools to distribute the address and dominate the news cycle and opinion corners was an impressive harbinger of new capabilities and a new dimension of public diplomacy promotion. That President Obama got the world debating and discussing his voyage, and considering whether a new chapter was indeed unfolding between the Middle East and West, is a stunning reminder of the power of “soft power” and speaks volumes to the ability to influence through inspiration. It’s hard to imagine that this event did not usher in a new era between America and the Muslim world based on that ever-popular campaign slogan of “change”.

Read the full transcript at CPD Resources.

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