President Barack Obama struck the right balance Tuesday between criticizing Islamic extremism and framing a constructive new approach toward improving America's relationship with the Arab world. His measured words at the United Nations brought a welcome dose of calm amid the anti-American protests overseas and the charged presidential campaign at home. By aligning the Arab Spring with Americans' democratic ideals, the president extended a hand to the Middle East even as he challenged Arab leaders to condemn anti-Western violence.
Obama's speech to the U.N. General Assembly was a dance on two fronts, as he sought to clip the wings of Mideast extremists and allies alike and respond to Republican nominee Mitt Romney's unfounded claim that the administration has put the nation's prestige and security interests at risk. Obama was right to be firm in calling for the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and in restating the imperative to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet he showed restraint by not being sucked in by election-year politics to draw any lines or timetables for American military involvement.
The president is understandably buying some time amid a close election just six weeks away and an uncertain period in the Arab world. Egypt's new Islamist president, in remarks over the weekend in advance of his U.N. visit, hit the pause button in his country's relationship with the West. In an interview with the New York Times, Mohammed Morsi said Washington needs to change its approach to the Arab world, show greater respect for its customs and interests and appreciate that allies sometimes must go their own ways. He also called on Washington to become a more honest broker between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Morsi is not saying anything particularly new, at least by Arab leaders. But he is punctuating a newfound independence from the West, and suggesting that Egypt will lay out new markers for its cooperation. His remarks were also remarkably one-sided. Nowhere did this former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood talk about Egypt's responsibilities in building stronger ties. And his own delicate domestic standing makes Morsi unwilling to recognize the concerns the United States has with the Brotherhood and its discriminatory teachings — and unwilling or unable to effectively confront anti-American fervor, as evidenced recently by his blase response to protesters who breached the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Obama's description of this being a "season of progress" in the Mideast showed a grasp of the long arc of Arab history. And it sharpened the contrast with Romney's unrealistic view that Washington can wave a magic wand — or sword — and its allies (much less its enemies) will yield to American pressure. It will take time and a cooperative approach by both sides to improve America's relationships in the unstable Muslim world. Obama responsibly left the door open Tuesday for further gains after the election and avoided recklessly issuing demands to respond to Romney's irresponsible tough talk.