Next week President Barack Obama travels to Cairo to deliver what is expected to be a major statement on relations between the United States and the Islamic world.

The speech is expected to offer a redefinition of American foreign policy in the region; it’s meant to replace the Bush administration’s “war against terrorism” and to repudiate Samuel F. Huntington’s famous formulation of a war between Islamic civilization and the West, which many in the Middle East believe motivates American policy.

Certainly, Barack Obama will deny that the United States government thinks that Islam itself, or Muslims, are America’s enemies. He will note, as he has done in the past, that his own father was a Muslim, that his middle name is Hussein, and that he attended a Muslim school as a child and has lived in Muslim society.

That says relatively little about the foreign policy choices of a nation, although it offers some insurance against the gross ignorance that has made itself felt in some aspects of U.S. policy.

The president is expected to deplore the atrocities committed by American forces during the Iraqi and Afghan wars, and promise to reduce the incidence of civilian casualties in American military operations. None of this will be a surprise. He will stress the need for cooperative action against terrorists and pirates.

But will anything seriously change? Informed Israeli circles say that Obama’s supposedly new policy will be one that American observers will recognize as the continuation of a policy inaugurated in the late months of the Bush administration.

Israel’s wish to instigate an American attack on Iran will be rejected, and Israel will be warned not to try this alone — at least not in the foreseeable future.

Overtures to Iran to negotiate the issues that stand between the U.S. and renewed good relations will continue, but are not expected to be rewarded.

Israel will be expected to halt the expansion of its colonies in the Palestinian territories — at least for the present. It will be offered the reward of recognition by all the Muslim countries in exchange for a two-states settlement with Palestine.

There will be much resistance to this in Israel, and much pressure put on Obama by the Israeli lobby in the United States. Whether he resists will be important to the credibility of his policy.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will continue to be backed by the United States to dominate the Palestinian situation on the West Bank and to hold the line against growth in the influence of Hamas.

To judge from what already has been said in administration circles, the effort initiated under Condoleezza Rice and President George Bush to rally an alliance of supposedly stable Sunni nations will continue. These are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and possibly Syria. They will be relied upon to check the radical Islamic movements supported by Iran: Hezbollah and Hamas.

A discussion of this by the commentator Aluf Benn in the Israeli daily Haaretz calls the plan “a classic of power diplomacy,” and attributes it to the influence of Henry Kissinger.

This may not be much of a compliment to Kissinger, although he would approve of abandoning the Bush claim that the U.S. is expanding democracy and abolishing tyranny in the Middle East.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria are not part of any democracy movement in the region, any more than the military regime of Lon Nol in Cambodia or the Chile of Pinochet and the Argentina of the generals were when Kissinger was in the White House and the State Department. The alliance of authoritarian rulers with the United States, against radical and populist forces, is consistent with past U.S. policy.

It usually is described as “realistic” to make alliances with governments thought to be in firm control of their countries, and to discount the value or political merits of pushing such issues as human rights practice in places where they are unwelcome.

One also must ask how realistic this really is. The precedents of Cambodia’s, Chile’s and Argentina’s defense of what Washington conceived to be American interests in those regions are unreassuring.

The possibility that scarcely seems worth mentioning is that Obama declares in Cairo that he wishes to withdraw all American forces from Muslim countries, and seeks the support of all Muslim governments to make this possible. That while he will honor guarantees given to governments in the region, the objective of his government is a creative disengagement, leaving the people and political forces of the region to settle their own affairs, with — should they wish — generous financial help from the U.S., and no doubt from Europe.

Now that would make headlines, and history.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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