President Barack Obama appointed Rashad Hussain as the U.S. special envoy to the Muslim world. Hussain will be representing the U.S. in the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conferences. Hussain, a second generation Indian American Muslim, was already serving as the Deputy Associate Counsel to the President. The appointment of Hussain is a small, but important step in the right direction to restoring America’s standing in the Muslim world. The U.S. has a serious credibility problem in the Middle East and restoring it requires not only military power, but soft power as well. Obama beginning his speech with “Asalam Alaykum,” and appointing a Muslim scholar as the U.S. envoy will resonate with the people of the Middle East and increase U.S. soft power.
Joseph Nye, a Professor at Harvard University, who coined the phrase “soft power,” recently co-chaired a bipartisan commission with Richard Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State in the Bush administration. The commission included a group of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, former ambassadors, retired military officers and heads of non-profit organizations. The committee concluded America's image and influence has declined, and the United States must change from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.
Inspiring optimism and hope in the Middle East is a daunting task, and it cannot be done with just the military. American foreign policy after the Second World War was entirely focused on Cold War tactics. The U.S.’s lack of communication exemplified their military focus. It is difficult for people of Iran to forget or forgive America’s role in deterring their country’s effort to embrace democracy. In 1953, the CIA organized and executed the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran and installed a monarch, Shah. Iran was on its path to a secular democracy. Instead of supporting and nurturing the young democracy in Iran, the U.S. put its priorities on oil. Ultimately, Shah’s regime was overthrown by mullahs in 1979 and led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Misguided U.S. foreign policy has done irreparable damage to the United State’s reputation. When the U.S. talks about promoting democracy today, it sounds awfully hypocritical to the people on the street in the Arab world.
After 9/11, the whole world rallied behind the United States and it appeared as a golden opportunity to restore American credibility. The opportunity was quickly lost with the America’s declaration of war against Iraq for unfounded rational. America lost the trust of even traditional allies from the west after 9/11. The militarized foreign policy adopted by President Bush and Vice President Cheney created even more enemies in the Middle East.
The Middle East has seen too much of American hard power and too little of American soft power. In his speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, President Obama promised a “new beginning” in U.S. relationship with the Muslim world. President Obama’s plate is full of domestic problems but the Middle East can’t wait. President Obama must act decisively to gain the trust of the people of the Muslim world. His appointment of Hussain as a special envoy is a decision to be applauded.