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Obama Reaches Out To Muslims On Middle East Trip

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Obama Reaches Out To Muslims On Middle East Trip

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Obama Reaches Out To Muslims On Middle East Trip

Obama Reaches Out To Muslims On Middle East Trip

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President Obama leaves for the Middle East on Tuesday. He is scheduled to make a major address in Egypt on U.S. relations with the Muslim world. He'll also visit Saudi Arabia. Obama talks about his trip with NPR hosts Steve Inskeep and Michelle Norris.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I'm Steve Inskeep.

And we're joined this morning by my colleague, Michele Norris. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE NORRIS: Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: She is from NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And we, together, have been asking President Obama about how he wants to improve America's image in the Muslim world.

NORRIS: That's what he will attempt to do in a speech on Thursday. He will be in Cairo.

INSKEEP: He'll be reaching out to people angered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention long-standing U.S. support for Israel. And it was on that topic that we began our discussion.

NORRIS: Do you have to change, or alter in some way, the strong U.S. support for Israel?

President BARACK OBAMA: No. I don't think that we have to change strong U.S. support for Israel.

INSKEEP: But as we heard last night on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the president says he wants to persuade Israelis to do more for peace with Palestinians.

Pres. OBAMA: Part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction - the current trajectory in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests, but also U.S. interests.

INSKEEP: That's President Barack Obama, who sat down with us yesterday in a red carpeted library. It was on the ground floor of the White House.

NORRIS: The president's two children had just come home from school. His wife Michelle had just strolled by with the dog, and the president had just finished delivering a speech on the bankruptcy of General Motors.

INSKEEP: We asked the president about his next big speech.

NORRIS: That speech will take place in Egypt, a country that has been governed by the same president for decades.

INSKEEP: Does it undermine your effort reaching out to the Muslim world - which you'll do with a speech in Cairo - that you'll be speaking in a country with an undemocratic government that is an ally of the United States?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, I already spoke in Turkey. They have a democracy that I'm sure some Turks would say has flaws to it, just as there are some Americans who would suggest there are flaws to American democracy.

INSKEEP: Are you about to say Egypt is just a country with some flaws?

Pres. OBAMA: No, no. What I'm about - don't put words in my mouth, Steve…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: …especially not in the White House. The…

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Just wondered where you were heading with that.

Pres. OBAMA: You can wait until the postscript. There is a wide range of governments throughout the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world. And the main thing for me to do is to project what our values are, what our ideals are, what we care most deeply about. And that is democracy - rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Now in every country I deal with, whether it's China, Russia, ultimately Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, allies as well as non-allies, there are going to be some differences. And what I want to do is just maintain consistency in affirming what those values that I believe in are, understanding that, you know, we're not going to get countries to embrace various of our values simply by lecturing or through military means.

INSKEEP: Michele Norris.

NORRIS: You've mentioned many times the importance of reaching out to Iran with an open hand, trying to engage that country. Are you also willing to try to engage with Hezbollah or Hamas, entities that have now had significant gains in recent elections?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, let's just underscore our point, here. Iran is a huge, significant nation-state that has, you know, has, I think, across the international community, been recognized as such. Hezbollah and Hamas are not. And I don't think that we have to approach those entities in the same way. In the…

NORRIS: Is that - if I may ask, though, does that change what their electoral - does that change with their electoral gain?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, look, they - if at some point Lebanon is a member of the United Nations, if at some point they are elected as a head of state, or a head of state is elected in Lebanon that is a member of that organization, then that would raise these issues. That hasn't happened yet.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, because you mentioned Iran, I want to ask a question about that and about your efforts to engage with the Muslim world in a different way.

Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: I would like to know which development you think would be more harmful to America's prestige in the Muslim world, which is worse: an Iranian government that has nuclear weapons, or an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Pres. OBAMA: Well, I'm not going to engage in this hypotheticals, Steve. But I can tell you that my view is that Iran possessing a nuclear weapon would be profoundly destabilizing to the region - not just with respect to Israel's response, but the response of other Arab states in the region or Muslim states in the region that might be concerned about Iran having an undue advantage.

More broadly, I've got a concern about nuclear proliferation, generally. It's something that I talked about in my speech in Prague. I think one of the things that we need to do is to describe to the Iranians a pathway for them achieving security, respect and prosperity that doesn't involve them possessing a nuclear weapon.

But we have to be able to make that same argument to other countries that might aspire to nuclear weapons, and we have to apply some of those same principles to ourselves so that, for example, I'll be traveling next month to Moscow to initiate start talks, trying to reduce our nuclear stockpiles as part of a broader effort in the international community to contain our nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: And would you urge other nations to restrain themselves until you can complete that process?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, that's going to be the challenge. That's why we're so busy around here all the time.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about one other challenge, if I might. Is your effort to engage the Muslim world likely to be complicated or even undermined by the fact that you're escalating a war in a Muslim country, Afghanistan, with the inevitable civilian casualties and other bad news that will come out of that?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, there's no doubt that any time you have civilian casualties, that always complicates things, whether it was a Muslim or a non-Muslim country. I think part of what I'll be addressing in my speech is a reminder that the reason we're in Afghanistan is very simple, and that is 3,000 Americans were killed. And you had a devastating attack on the American homeland. The organization that planned those attacks intends to carry out further attacks, and we cannot standby and allow that to happen.

But I am somebody who is very anxious to have the Afghan government and the Pakistani government have the capacity to ensure that those safe havens don't exist. And so, you know, and it's - I think will be an important reminder that we have no territorial ambitions in Afghanistan. We don't have an interest in exploiting the resources of Afghanistan. What we want is simply that people aren't hanging out in Afghanistan who are plotting to bomb the United States. And I think that's a fairly modest goal that, you know, other Muslim countries should be able to understand.

INSKEEP: That's President Barack Obama. He spoke with us yesterday at the White House about a problem that touches nearly all his foreign policy goals.

NORRIS: It's the strained relationship between the United States and the Muslim world.

INSKEEP: The president faces sharp criticism from many of his efforts to correct the U.S. image abroad. Yesterday, former Vice President Dick Cheney launched another defense of the Bush administration. The current president told us simply that he thinks Cheney is wrong.

Pres. OBAMA: And I don't in any way begrudge, I think, anybody in debating, sometimes ferociously, these issues that are of preeminent and importance to the United States.

NORRIS: And later this week, in Cairo, the president will add his voice to what can often be a ferocious debate abroad.

INSKEEP: He's facing public opinion surveys suggesting that most people in the Arab world are still skeptical of U.S. leadership. You can find our entire conversation with the president at npr.org.

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Obama: U.S. Needs To Be 'Honest' With Israel

NPR's Full Interview With President Obama

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President Obama met with NPR's Michele Norris and Steve Inskeep Monday to discuss his Mideast policies before he delivers a speech in Cairo on Thursday. Pete Souza hide caption

toggle caption Pete Souza

President Obama met with NPR's Michele Norris and Steve Inskeep Monday to discuss his Mideast policies before he delivers a speech in Cairo on Thursday.

Pete Souza

Clips From The Interview

Obama: 'There's No Doubt That The United States Has A Special Relationship With Israel'

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Obama's Response To Former Vice President Cheney's Rhetoric On Mideast Policies

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Obama On Iran Possessing A Nuclear Weapon

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Read The Full Transcript

President Obama, just days before traveling to the Middle East to deliver a key speech on U.S.-Muslim relations, on Monday reasserted U.S. support for Israel. But in an interview with NPR, the president also said he will continue to push for a Palestinian state and for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

"I don't think we have to change strong support for Israel," Obama said during an interview with NPR hosts Michele Norris of All Things Considered and Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition.

"We do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace," Obama said. "And that's going to require, from my view, a two-state solution."

It will also require, he said, a freeze on Israeli settlements, including expansion to accommodate successive generations of settlers, and for Palestinians to make progress on security and end "the incitement that understandably makes Israelis so concerned."

The president also suggested that the United States' special relationship with Israel requires some tough love. "Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama said. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region."

On Thursday, Obama will be in Cairo, where he will deliver a highly anticipated speech that the White House has characterized as a message to the Arab world — and a high-profile opportunity to reshape America's image among Muslim countries in the region. On his way to Cairo, the president will stop Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, where he'll meet in Riyadh with another Mideast ally, King Abdullah. In recent weeks, Obama has met in Washington with King Abdullah of Jordan, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A meeting scheduled with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was cancelled after the death of Mubarak's 12-year-old grandson.

But Monday's news headlines only underscored the challenges that face the new president in the troubled region. Netanyahu flatly rejected Obama's call for a halt to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. Netanyahu said it would be tantamount to "freezing life." The settlements must expand, he said, to accommodate growing families.

And in Afghanistan, where the war has now dragged on for more than seven years, 28 people were reported killed in violence Monday — including four U.S. troops felled by roadside bombs.

Inskeep asked how escalating the war in Afghanistan, a Muslim country, could complicate or even undermine the president's effort to engage the Muslim world — particularly given civilian casualties. Obama expressed regret for the civilian casualties, but he also invoked the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in defense of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

"Every time you have civilian casualties, that always complicates things," Obama said, "whether [it's in] a Muslim or non-Muslim country.

"Part of what I'll be addressing in my speech [is a] reminder that the reason we're in Afghanistan is very simple: Three-thousand Americans were killed," he said. "You had a devastating attack on the American homeland. The organization that planned those attacks intends to carry out further attacks.

"We cannot stand by and allow that to happen," he said.

It is not often that the president has invoked the Sept. 11 attacks in defense of his foreign policy. But with violence in Afghanistan escalating as the country's Aug. 20 elections approach and military deaths rising, the president's commitment to the battle is also playing out: He plans to send 17,000 more combat troops and 4,000 more military trainers there over the summer, increasing to 55,000 the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan.

Inskeep and Norris also pressed the president on how he can develop credibility in the Muslim world if Israel keeps pushing back on the settlement issue.

"What does it suggest," Inskeep asked, "that Israel is not taking your advice?"

Obama responded: "It's still early in the process. They've [Israel] formed a government, what, a month ago?"

"We're going to have a series of conversations," the president added. "I believe that strategically, the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israel's security," Obama said. "Over time, in the absence of peace with Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems on its borders."

Norris asked Obama about his promise to extend an open hand to Iran, and whether, given their recent political gains, he would extend the same hand to the Palestinian militant organization Hamas and to Lebanon's Hezbollah organization, which the U.S. has called a terrorist group.

"Iran is a huge, significant nation-state that has, across the international community, been recognized as such," Obama said. "Hezbollah and Hamas are not. I don't think we have to approach those entities in the same way."

But if a member of Hezbollah were to be elected head of state in Lebanon, which is part of the United Nations, "then that would raise these issues. That hasn't happened yet," Obama said.

Norris also asked Obama whether former Vice President Dick Cheney's outspoken defense of Bush-era national security policy has hurt the new administration's efforts to craft a new image of America on the global stage.

Cheney, Norris says, has been "forceful, unapologetic and doesn't seem willing to scale back his rhetoric."

"How much does that undermine or complicate your effort to extend a hand, to explain the Obama doctrine and draw a line of demarcation between that administration and yours?" Norris asked.

Obama suggested that though he believes Cheney's analysis is flawed, the former vice president has every right to weigh in on important national security issues.

"He also happens to be wrong, right?" Obama said. "Last time, immediately after his last speech, I think there was a fact check on his speech that didn't get a very good grade.

"Does it make it more complicated? No. because I think these are complicated issues, and there's a legitimate debate to be had about national security."

Obama added: "I don't doubt the sincerity of the former vice president or the previous administration in wanting to protect the American people."

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