Obama's Candidacy 'Speaks to Muslims Abroad'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - In the close race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the rival candidates' foreign policy positions are drawing increasing scrutiny around the globe, and especially in the Arab-Islamic world, where significant security challenges face the next administration.

An unresolved nuclear dispute with Iran, resurgent violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamist extremism, Turk-Kurd tensions, regional meddling by energy-rich Russia and Venezuela, and Palestinian rocket attacks threatening to trigger a new Mideast war -- the next commander-in-chief will have a lot to contend with.

And while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is close to clinching the Republican nomination with his national security credentials largely undented, it's the Democratic race, where the presidential aspirants have more to prove, that is drawing most attention abroad.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) highlights her membership of the Senate Armed Services Committee as well as her experience and contacts made during her eight years as first lady. She has criticized her opponent for saying he would meet with despots like the leaders of Iran "without preconditions" and for threatening to "bomb Pakistan."

Sen. Barack Obama's committee assignments since entering the Senate in 2005 include membership of Foreign Relations' subcommittees dealing with Asia, Africa and Europe. The Illinois Democrat says that as president he will meet with America's foes only after making "the careful preparation necessary." He says Clinton has twisted his stance on Pakistan: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President [Pervez] Musharraf won't act, we will."

On most foreign policy issues, the two Democrats' positions are largely similar, despite Clinton's efforts to paint Obama as naive, and Obama's characterization of Clinton's thinking as conventional and outdated.

The Democratic primary race is fueling considerable debate in the Arab world, where Israel, Iraq and Iran are the most important issues for many.

Both candidates essentially favor a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, multilateral diplomacy with Iran, and a two-state settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while claiming to be strongly supportive of Israel.

But it is Obama's candidacy that appears to have stoked the most interest in recent weeks.

When several hundred Muslim representatives from across the Islamic world got together with American scholars at a Brookings Institution-organized event in Qatar last month, a straw poll on the presidential candidates handed an overwhelming victory to Obama.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Brookings senior fellow who participated in the U.S.-Islamic Forum in Doha, observed at the time, "The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia, certainly speaks to Muslims abroad."

"Given a chance, the Arabs and Muslims would vote for candidate Obama," columnist Aijaz Zaka Syed wrote in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times . "After the unholy mess that you see from Palestine to Pakistan, the last thing we want is another trigger-happy cowboy in the White House. So we are all for the change that Obama promises."

"I do not mind confessing that I prefer him because he is black," columnist Jihad el-Khazen wrote of Obama in Lebanon's Dar al-Hayat . "From my experience with Congress, I can tell that congressmen who sympathize the most with us [the Arabs] belong to the 'Black Caucus.'"

Pro-Obama coverage in the Arab world prompted Lebanese politics professor As'ad Abu Khalil to comment on his blog that al-Jazeera television was treating the Illinois senator like "the political equivalent of Muhammad Ali."

Many Muslims view the election campaign through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Clinton and Obama portray themselves as strong supporters of Israel. (Obama, after an unsolicited expression of support from Nation of Islam leader on Feb. 24, said he had "been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments.")

Arab political analyst Akram Baker, writing in Beirut's Daily Star , said Clinton had "outdone herself pandering to Israel and its supporters on the American right."

Baker, however, seemed willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. Although Obama had also expressed firm backing for Israel, he said, "this is to be expected, at least for now."

"By speaking of having an understanding of Muslims due to his years as a child in Muslim-majority Indonesia and owing to the fact that his late father and maternal grandmother were Muslims, Obama would bring a very different perspective than other candidates," he opined.

But Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a veteran Arab journalist writing in the Daily Star , warned that Obama's inexperience in the Middle East could prove dangerous.

His plans for the region could end up destabilizing Iraq and benefiting the regimes in Iran and Syria, while holding out little in the way of concessions to the Palestinians, he wrote.

"Arabs should look further than Obama's second name of Hussein or his family's Muslim roots," Abdul-Hussain advised. "They should beware of his lack of experience in a region where even experts often fail to anticipate what comes next."

Mohamed Habib of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood saw little difference between Obama and Clinton when it came to Arab concerns, and declared himself "not optimistic" at the prospect of either of them in the White House.

"I think [Democrats] can be more violent and aggressive and more biased to the Zionist entity than Republicans themselves," Islam Online quoted him as saying.

Adel El-Qady, a journalist with Moheet Arabic network news service, disagreed, arguing that "the Middle East region has found the Democrats' way to be less offensive and less provocative to its peoples."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow