Obama changed Lebanese minds

Osama bin Laden was so worried that President Obama's

Cairo speech might win over Muslim hearts and minds that the jihadist sent out a pre-emptory audiotaped message denouncing the United States and warning against Obama's "new beginning."

It turns out that bin Laden was right to be worried: The president did, it seems, change some minds in the Middle East.

On Sunday, an American-aligned coalition won a surprising victory in Lebanon's parliamentary elections, pushing back a challenge by Hezbollah, which had been widely expected to win a majority of seats. There were undoubtedly many factors at play — Lebanon's politics are fractured and Byzantine — but Obama's well-received speech has been credited with making a difference.

So, while it's much too early to tell whether the president's emphasis on an empathetic diplomacy can push old enemies back to the negotiating table, the early result confirms an old adage: You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.

In pursuit of national security, there's nothing wrong with making friends and influencing people.

You'd think that might be obvious, but, in some quarters, it's not. Bin Laden isn't the only observer unhappy about the president's speech, in which he used his singular biography to reach out to the Muslim world.

Obama's paternal grandfather, a Kenyan, was Muslim. And the president spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, after his mother's marriage to Lolo Soetoro.

"I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith," Obama said.

The president's domestic critics have lashed out, unhappy that Obama acknowledged American missteps in the Middle East. And several were furious that the president, speaking of Palestinian suffering, used the analogy of black Americans' oppression in urging Palestinians to reject violence.

Fretted David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, "The president's Cairo speech: worse than feared."

Throughout human history, there have been those who believed that strength lies only in the use of force and that any gesture of friendship toward enemies or rivals is a sign of weakness or "appeasement."

But those who read that history carefully know it isn't true. Indeed, as the world's remaining superpower, with the world's strongest military, the U.S. can afford to be conciliatory.

Besides, what have the last eight years of brute force and stingy diplomacy brought us? The invasion of Iraq, a country that had never attacked the U.S., proved a useful recruiting tool for al-Qaida.

And the Bush administration's refusal to even talk to Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's patrons, only reinforced their leaders' claims that the U.S. is a hostile imperial power bent on regime change.

While Obama's moving speech was a much-needed step away from the Cheney-Rumsfeld "just bomb 'em" doctrine, the president has much more work to do before he can lay claim to any improvement in the nettlesome politics of the Middle East.

Not only must he persuade Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, but he must also do everything possible to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions.

He must also continue to work on shoring up civil institutions in Iraq and curbing Iran's influence there.

Still, Lebanon's election is good news in a region where there has been little of it.

Hezbollah has been implicated in a number of terrorist attacks against American, Israeli and other Western targets, so its electoral loss is a defeat for terrorism and its state sponsors.

If that's the only result of Obama's Cairo speech, it's a good return on the investment.

Cynthia Tucker, an Opinion columnist, writes Wednesday and Sunday. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.