DRESDEN, Germany— President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world was loaded with phrases and ideas aimed very much at rattling one man he never mentioned: Osama bin Laden.
Senior administration officials say the speech was carefully crafted to rob the Al Qaeda leader and his terrorist network of some of its chief recruiting totems, including fears the United States plans a permanent presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
White House officials say that the tide may be turning on the world’s most wanted man. “For the first time, they’re beginning to lose the propaganda war,” said a top aide traveling with Obama during his six-day mission to Europe and the Middle East.
The week of high drama featured a showdown of sorts between the two leaders — Obama vs. Osama — with Obama’s soaring speech and a bin Laden audiotape providing a powerful point-counterpoint as each sought to make his case to the Muslim world.
Obama aides believe they can increasingly isolate bin Laden, as Obama’s personal appeal grows in the region and as he modifies or dismantles President George W. Bush’s security policies.
Administration officials also say Obama hopes to sap the appeal of terrorist organizations with his plans to close the military prison at Guantanamo, even though it probably won’t be completely empty by the one-year deadline he set. He also plans to end harsh interrogations for terror suspects, even though the president has left loopholes.
“A lot of their best recruiting tricks are being taken off the table,” said another White House official.
Obama also took dead aim at bin Laden’s frequent claim that the United States seeks to occupy the Middle East. Largely overlooked in Obama’s remarks in Cairo, he included a reminder that he plans no permanent military bases in Iraq, “and no claim on their territory or resources.”
And he said the same about Afghanistan: “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. ... We seek no military bases there.”
Obama also sought to portray Al Qaeda as bloodthirsty killers — reminding his audience the terror network murdered not only Americans but also fellow Muslims, in direct violation of teachings in the Quran. “They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths — more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam,” Obama said.
Other passages in the speech spoke about the importance of providing jobs and other opportunities for youth throughout the Middle East, where poverty and hopelessness are often blamed for pushing disaffected youth toward terrorism. Obama spoke of expanding scholarship programs and business opportunities in the region.
It’s not the first time the United States has tried to win over hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Bush created a public-diplomacy team in the State Department with that mission, first tapping a former Madison Avenue ad executive to craft message designed to show America in a softer light.
The executive quit shortly thereafter and efforts by former State Department officials Margaret Tutwiler and Bush confidant Karen Hughes also failed to bear fruit — in part because of continued animosity toward the United States over Bush’s staunch support of Israel, Guantanamo Bay prison and the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.
But Obama is clearly raising the stakes on the effort — believing he has something Bush did not, Obama himself. With his Muslim family roots, exotic name and personal appeal, Obama is offering himself as almost a personal ambassador to the Middle East, in hopes of providing a powerful alternative to bin Laden and his terror organization.
In anticipation of the president’s Muslim charm offensive, bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, released two anti-Obama recordings in two days.
The president's aides view the tapes not as a threat, but as a symptom of frustration. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters after a bin Laden tape was played on Arabic television shortly after Obama’s arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: “I don't think it's surprising that Al Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the President's historic efforts and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world.”
Obama said Friday during a press at Dresden Castle with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that mistakes made at Guantanamo "became a symbol for many around the world of us not sticking to our ideals and our traditions and rule of law."
"But it was done. And that's the past," he said. "And now we have to move forward."
Here’s the full passage about Iraq from Obama’s speech: “I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own. And that's why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012.”
The comment was greeted by applause.