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Obama to do "truth-telling" in Cairo speech to Muslim world

President Barack Obama has said that he would tell Arabs and Israelis to stop saying one thing behind closed doors and something else publicly in his much-awaited speech to the Arab and Muslim world in Cairo tomorrow.

"We have a joke around the White House. We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East," Mr Obama said in a telephone interview about his speech with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which was carried on the newspaper's website today.

"There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it," Mr Obama said.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama, right, on his arrival at the Royal Terminal of the King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama, right, on his arrival at the Royal Terminal of the King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, he said, there were a lot of Israelis "who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly."

He said there were a lot of Palestinians who recognised that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel had not delivered any benefits to their people and that they might have been better off today if they had taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground.

The US President also felt there were a lot of Arab states that had not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery and were not very forthcoming with money to actually help the Palestinian people.

"...there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people," he told the columnist in the 20-minute interview.

"As somebody who ordered an additional 17,000 troops into Afghanistan, you would be hard pressed to suggest that what we are doing is not backed up by hard power. I discount a lot of that criticism. What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us," he explained.

Mr Obama said that part of America's battle against extremists involved changing the hearts and minds of the people they recruited from.

"And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter," he said.

President Obama arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia today, on the first leg of a trip that will also take him to Egypt, Germany and France. In Riyadh, he had talks with King Abdullah today.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had said over the weekend that President Obama's speech in Cairo would be an important part of his engagement with the Muslim world, which began in his inaugural address and has continued since through various speeches, interviews and messages.

"The speech will outline his personal commitment to engagement, based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. He will discuss how the United States and Muslim communities around the world can bridge some of the differences that have divided them. He will review particular issues of concern, such as violent extremism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he will discuss new areas for partnership going forward that serve the mutual interests of our people," Mr Gibbs said.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough pointed out that Egypt was a long-time strategic ally of the US.

"It is a young -- like much of the Muslim world, itself is a young country with a burgeoning younger population that the President looked very much forward to engaging directly in this speech and in the meetings while he's there," he said.

The speech in Cairo will be held at the University of Cairo and will be co-hosted by the Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest universities in the region. Mr Obama will also pay a visit to a mosque.

"So the message the President wants to send is not different, frankly, than the one he's been sending since he was inaugurated, namely that we believe that this is an opportunity for us in the United States, who, frankly, have arrived at a place here based on many of the advances that come out of the Muslim world, be it science out of Baghdad, be it math and technology out of Al-Andalus or otherwise. The fact is that we've had a great partnership over the course of many decades. We want to get back on a shared partnership, back in a conversation that focuses on the shared values, and that's what the President will talk about in Cairo," Mr Gibbs said.

Asked if political dissidents in Egypt had been invited for the speech, Mr McDonough said invitations had gone out to "the full range of actors in Egyptian political society."

"The President looks very much forward to that audience hearing the speech. But there will be additional opportunity to engage key actors in civil society in Egypt, in addition to obviously engaging our friends in the Egyptian government," he added.

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