Since my travels throughout the breadth of the US with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed started in early September (2008), I have really gained a better understanding of the diversity and complexities of Islam in America, from the Bosnians in St. Louis to the Somalians in Grand Island, Nebraska. As a young American that cares deeply for his countries health and direction, I have always paid close attention to one particular issue which Ambassador Ahmed discusses quite frequently: the importance of healing our strained relationship with the Muslim world.  Obama, he says, ‘simply can’t afford to adopt the same policies towards the Muslim world as Bush’.

President Obama, the Ambassador notes, will have his hands full with the Muslim world, from ending the onslaught in the Gaza Strip, to stabilizing Iraq, to confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to battling militants in Pakistan’s tribal regions.  So how can the new Commander in Chief rehabilitate America’s image abroad, bring down the temperature in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and most importantly, how can he re-store America’s dignity and ‘soft power’ throughout the world that Bush carelessly neglected over the last eight years?

As we traveled from West Palm Beach to Miami via rental car, I asked the Ambassador and my team members two questions: what do you think Obama will do and what do you think Obama should do with each of the aforementioned conflicts?

The following is a brief summary of our thoughts and suggestions for Obama’s policy towards the Muslim world.

What do we think Obama will Do?

Frankie Martin and Jonathan Hayden have been research assistants for Ambassador Ahmed for many years and traveled with him to the Muslim world as part of the Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization project sponsored by the Brookings Institution.  I asked them both what they thought Obama would do in the Gaza Strip.

Frankie said that Obama will replicate the Clinton administrations agenda.  He will ask diplomats (many of which were the same advisors to Clinton, like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk) to sit down with Hamas and Israeli leaders to try and immediatly broker a cease-fire as the initial step towards a new round of ‘peace talks’.  There is a huge question mark, however, with their long term plan.  Will Obama stand by his word and engage in discussions with Hamas?  Or, is this simply false information?  Clinton, after all, didn’t accomplish all too much, and saw practically no positive results with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Obama will also have to deal with Iran as a growing regional influence.  According to Martin, he will continue multilateral pressure and will ‘probably go back and forth, from hard talk to actual dialogue’, which is actually no different than Bush’s agenda.  Hayden predicted that Obama will never have ‘face to face’ talks with President Ahmadinejad, but he will probably communicate with  through EU members like France and Germany.  Simply talking to Iran could be seen as ‘appeasement’, a term often attributed to the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.  Essentially, they see no difference between Obama’s preliminary plans and Bush’s failed policies.  After all, Iran is still pursuing nuclear capabilities, much to the chagrin of the Western countries.

Iraq, on the other hand, is a whole different ball game, according to Hayden.  Domestic politics in the US will have a big role in Obama’s agenda.  He must fulfill his promise to bring troops home, or else he will lose the respect of the Americans that voted for him partly for this reason.  He will most likely start pulling out troops when he can, but the amount of pressure he faces from Congress and from the American people will most likely set the timetable for the withdrawal.

Ambassador Ahmed was the former administrator to the Waziristan province of Afghanistan, where much of the turmoil surrounding the US’s failures originates – so to say he is an expert on the region is not misleading.  He has taught the team the complexities of tribal societies and tribal codes of honor, which essentially explains the recent character, conduct, and actions of tribesmen in the region.  Martin and Hayden both say that Obama will most likely go through with the troop surge, partially because he guaranteed the American public during the campaign for the presidency that he will defeat the Taliban.

But separating the domestic matters inside of Afghanistan and Pakistan is impossible, primarily because both tribal societies are interlinked with one another through the Khyber Pass.  There is a chance, both note, that Obama will continue the fight on terror in Pakistan, which he hinted at nearly two years ago.

What should he do?

The conflict in the Gaza Strip will be an immediate problem for the Obama administration.  Martin thinks Obama should talk with Hamas because ‘the idea of ignoring Hamas is ridiculous’.  In essence, it is the government of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.  Martin’s argument was ‘If the Israelis (their bitter enemy) can negotiate with them, so can the Americans’.  Both Martin and Hayden agreed that it is imperative for Obama to re-energize the two bases by articulating the vision of a peace process.  Simply supporting one side is fundamentally detrimental.  Peace cannot be achieved if the US decides that one side is right and the other side is wrong.

It is important for Obama to ensure the long term stability of the government and democracy that the Americans have planted in Iraq.  Pulling the troops out prematurely simply for political measures could be a dangerous scenario for the infant state.  The last thing Obama needs, Martin notes, is for Iraq to ‘slip into a hellish anarchic state’.  To insure the stability of the Iraqi government, Martin and Hayden recommended the following: replace half the soldiers with ‘infrastructure people’, including foreign servicemen, peace corps, and a new civil service.  Obama also must continue to work with Iraq’s tribal leaders to help create a unified government.  All in all, Obama shouldn’t change course drastically, but he should be careful with the timing of troop withdrawal.  Iraq’s security forces must be able to handle possible insurgencies from foreign territories.

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy capabilities is a perplexing matter for the US.  Obama must insure that safety of the Iranian people, first and foremost.  If he decides to use military action, a Shia awakening will erupt (if it hasn’t already happened), which could spread throughout the entire Middle East.  Hayden notes that Obama needs ‘much more diplomacy, and many more conferences’ to show the Iranian leadership that the American leadership has the capacity to not only listen, but also the ability to ferment and forge a lasting relationship built on mutual cooperation.  Most importantly, the US cannot allow Iran to be isolated.  Middle Eastern politics cannot be separated from Iran’s growing regional influence, especially with Hamas and Hezbollah in mind.  Martin even went as far as to say ‘the US must learn to possibly live with a nuclear Iran’.  That may be the Obama administrations biggest challenge.  Certainly, the US military (and economy) cannot afford to fight another war.

Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Ahmed and his research assistants note, is the number one hotspot for the US.  Obama must forge a relationship with the already maligned Pashtun tribesmen who are now giving their energy and lives in support to the Taliban cause.  The Pashtun tribal code, the pashtunwali, is under threat from forces like the US government, the Afghani government, the Indian government, and the Pakistanis military’s bombardment of the tribal regions in pursuit of ‘so-called’ terrorists.  If Obama wants to ‘save face’ in Afghanistan, he must work with the Pashtuns that dominate both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  His so called ‘surge’ will only inflame the Pashtuns’ sense of siege.  More diplomatic measures must be taken to insure that the Afghani and Pakistani tribes have a say in the political endeavors of the US, along with the Afghani and Pakistani government.

In essence, Obama doesn’t differ all that much with the Bush doctrine: he supports Israel, vows to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, is weary of the Iranians have nuclear technology, and isn’t opposed to fighting ‘al-Qaeda’ in Pakistan’s tribal regions.  So much for all that change he has talked about.

We concluded our discussion by tackling (and trying to re-define) Bush’s ‘War on Terror’.  The fight against extremism in the Muslim world should not be regarded as a war (for violence only reciprocates violence) but more of a challenge to win the hearts and minds of people that don’t have the educational tools or the living standards to live a happy life (hence why they often feel like violence is a last resort to get what they want).  Solving these political hotspots starts with educational funding, diplomacy, and maybe (but reluctantly) military force (if the intelligence is unquestionably solid).

Obama must show that he actually cares about places like the Gaza Strip and Kashmir and recognize that the Muslim world is no monolith.  Showing that he cares about these two spots will go a very long way in the minds of Muslims worldwide.  If Obama wants to see a ‘certain kind’ of Islam, he must avoid Bush’s policies – Bush actually created more extremism with his failure to understand the intricacies of Islam, tribal codes, and moreover, the importance of the Palestinians’ struggle.

Obama’s biggest challenge will be winning the hearts and minds of the Palestinians, the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Pakistanis, and the Iranians.  As Americans, I think we all can agree on this – the last thing we need is another Bush.