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For Obama, reality meets idealism in ties with Muslim world

Just as he did in his groundbreaking speech in Cairo in 2009, President Obama this week articulated the need for 'mutual interest and mutual respect' between Muslims and Americans. His idealism, though, has run into reality. He must adjust if he wins a second term.

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President Obama addresses the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York Sept. 25. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'The Obama administration’s mixed record underscores the challenges of redefining interests as well as the president’s own diplomatic miscalculations.'

Seth Wenig/AP

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Shades of Cairo were visible in New York this week, as President Obama spoke to the UN General Assembly about America’s relations with the changing Muslim world.

Just as he did in his groundbreaking speech in Egypt early in his presidency, Mr. Obama on Tuesday articulated the need for “mutual interest and mutual respect” between Muslims and Americans. In New York and Cairo he held out a new idealism toward the Middle East – one that aligns US security and economic interests with the welfare of the Arab street rather than the longevity of regimes that have failed and abused their peoples.

But a sea change has occurred in the region since Obama spoke in Cairo in June 2009, and reality has come face to face with idealism. Any American shift in tone or approach is coming against a current of long-defined alliances and deep historic antipathies. The Obama administration’s mixed record underscores the challenges of redefining interests as well as the president’s own diplomatic miscalculations.

As promised, Obama withdrew American forces from Iraq. And he is leading international efforts to penalize Iran with stiff economic sanctions for pursuing a suspected nuclear weapons program. But he has also quietly pushed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the back burner.

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