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Obama Reaches Out To Muslims On Middle East Trip

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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?

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.

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?

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?

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Just wondered where you were heading with that.

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?

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?

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.

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.

OBAMA: 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?

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?

OBAMA: 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.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.