Message: Obama cares about Muslims. And he's got Osama bin Laden on the run by wisely fighting the war not militarily, but ideologically, unlike George Bush.
That's the bottom-line finding in Rod Nordland's piece from Baghdad for the New York Times Sunday Week in Review story on Obama's speech to Muslims in Cairo, "Forceful Words and Fateful Realities." Nordland, a longtime Newsweek foreign correspondent, portrayed Osama bin Laden's taped rebuttal as a sign of his weakness.
Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last Thursday was "soft spoken and eloquent," said Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Iraqi cleric, grudgingly, since he also said he despised it. It was a speech that meant different things to different people, a quality that has been much noted in this president. He supported Israel, but reached out to the Muslim world in an unprecedented way. Some friends were troubled, others reassured. Some of America's enemies denounced it, but none dismissed it. Not even the arch-enemies at whom, in some important way, the speech was directed.
Just the day before, in fact, a pre-emptive audio tape attributed to Osama bin Laden warned his followers not to trust whatever Mr. Obama would say. And as it turned out, his fear was justified. In the view of Fawaz Gerges, the president's speech was above all else about the war on terror, a direct attack on Mr. bin Laden and the mindset he promulgates.
"Barack Obama is not just trying to reach out to Muslims for the sake of it," says Mr. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College and an authority on modern jihad. "He's trying to hammer a deadly nail in Osama bin Laden's message." What President Obama understood more than his predecessors, Mr. Gerges says, is that it is not a war that can be won militarily, but only ideologically.
Jarret Brachman, a former West Point terrorism expert and author of a recent book, "Global Jihadism," said the speech "was the most important strategic step we've taken in this war."
"That's why Al Qaeda is so nervous," he said.
If the medium were the message, the contrasts could not have been more stark. The American president was polished and poised, his speech broadcast from the elegant surroundings of an ancient Arab university, and watched worldwide. Mr. bin Laden's was on an audiotape, crackling and hard to hear, broadcast on Al Jazeera. "Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri have been reduced to a static voice on the radio, a static voice on TV and a static image and message," Mr. Gerges says. "The message no longer resonates with Muslims the way it did in the late 90s and after 2001."
The Times certainly never went out of its way to portray Osama bin Laden as on the run after a speech by President Bush.
Nordland buffed Obama's image further:
Mr. Obama's speech referenced the future, quoted from the three major monotheistic religions, and talked about a new beginning, all delivered with his customary calm. The two voices of Al Qaeda were strident, almost violently so, in their discourse.
Nordland put Obama in a favorable light, in comparison with the "Bush era."
Spurned in much of its Arab heartland, Al Qaeda lately has shifted its attentions to Pakistan, where it still enjoys high approval ratings, bringing the suicide bomb to its old allies the Taliban. "It's an easy thing to say that bin Laden is feeling increasingly marginalized, and support in the Mideast for Al Qaeda's aims is at an all-time low, but new clusters of Arab militants are re-gathering in Pakistan," Mr. Miller said. Significantly, Mr. bin Laden's audio statement last week focused on Pakistan's efforts, approved of by President Obama, to drive the Taliban out of Swat Valley, less than a day's drive from Pakistan's capital and its main nuclear research laboratories.
That's worrisome, but not as much as it would have been in the Bush era, when 49 percent of Saudis told pollsters they admired their errant countryman, offers of marriage poured in to him, and Osama at one point was the first name of choice for newborn boys.
Nordland forwarded a lame anti-Bush joke, allegedly popular among Muslims, portraying Bush as a bloodthirsty Muslim hater, before concluding:
It is not the sort of joke that seems likely now to stick to Barack Obama; his Cairo speech may not succeed in changing the Middle East, but it will at least have persuaded many skeptical Muslims that he cared.