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John V. Santore

John V. Santore

Posted: January 27, 2009 11:36 AM

Obama's Interview with Al Arabiya: New Language, New Ideas, and a New Approach

President Obama's interview with Al Arabiya (transcript available here) reveals the kind of measured tone and thoughtful approach to international affairs which will hopefully characterize the next four years. Revealingly, right-wingers like Matt Drudge are latching onto Obama's words, as well as his decision to speak to Arab media directly, and trying to turn them against him. For example, at the top of the Drudge Report today, Drudge writes:

He follows this with a blaring headline: "Iran Nuke This Year." The goal of this juxtaposition is to present Obama as someone who is willing to "listen" and, by implication, yield to the ambitions of countries like Iran who seek only to exploit perceived American flexibility so that they may realize their own "evil" ambitions. This kind of cartoonish analysis is very common among the pundit class, which in turn foists it upon the public. Obama is clearly determined to begin discussing challenges to international peace and security in a new way.

And that's what his interview with Al Arabiya showed. Let's run through some of his statements.

On Israel/Palestine, Obama begins by emphasizing discussion:

And so what I told him [George Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues -- and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen...Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them...But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table.
Obama then links the conflict to the broader region. Bush may have done this in theory, but the virtual absence of any significant Mid-East diplomacy for most of his presidency spoke to an administration which thought it could deal with the issue in isolation from others:
I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated. And what I've said, and I think Hillary Clinton has expressed this in her confirmation, is that if we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.
Mutual respect and mutual interest, presumably expanding beyond counter-terrorism. These are concepts that were never so clearly expressed by President Bush, who was never able to convince the Arab world that he was as concerned with Arab interests as much as he was interested in the needs of the United States.

Regarding Israel specifically, Obama begins by restating old principals that are problematic:

Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount.

I say such a statement is problematic not because promoting Israeli security is wrong, but because I think such a remark is an example of dictating a pre-condition by establishing Israel's well-being as "paramout." This is something Obama said he doesn't want to do. But even so, he immediately adds nuance to his position:

But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.

He thus calls upon Israel as well as the Palestinians to "make sacrifices." And he adds:

I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state -- I'm not going to put a time frame on it -- that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.

Obama continues by publicly sympathizing with the Palestinian people - not enough for activists, to be sure, but more than is usually done by US presidents:

And, look, I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved. And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off?

Choosing to use the image of a suffering Palestinian child is extremely effective, and serves to humanize Palestinians, which is a critical necessity. Obama continues:

Do they have a future for themselves? And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? And if we can keep our focus on making their lives better and look forward, and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past, then I think that we have an opportunity to make real progress.

Moving on to terrorism: Obama starts by attacking the intellectual underpinning of terrorist organizations directly. Simply referring to them as "evil" was never enough. But portraying them as a) ineffective, and by b) linking himself physically and intellectually to the Muslim world - in a much more direct way than he ever did during the campaign - he initiates an intellectual assault that will in the long run prove more devastating than physical ones. Of terrorist leaders, Obama says, "They seem nervous," which helps to undermine the image Bush presented of implacable, ane hence eternally dangerous, foes. And he continues:

Well, I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they've been using against me before I even took office, what that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt. There's no actions that they've taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them. Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith -- and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers -- regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams. And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.

Obama is arguing that a) he cares more about Muslims than Muslim terrorists do, and b) he is going to work to make Muslims believe that Americans don't distrust them or their religion. He then adds that actions matter more than words:

But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world -- but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. And you're going to see me following through with dealing with a drawdown of troops in Iraq, so that Iraqis can start taking more responsibility. And finally, I think you've already seen a commitment, in terms of closing Guantanamo, and making clear that even as we are decisive in going after terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians, that we're going to do so on our terms, and we're going to do so respecting the rule of law that I think makes America great.

Strength and principals, working together.

In what is a critically important exchange, Obama reveals that he is well aware that unsuccessful intellectual frameworks can end up producing bad policy approaches. In so doing, he challenges the "war on terror" paradigm head-on:

Q: President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, "war on terror," and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people -- Islamic fascism...

Obama: I think that you're making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name. And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda -- that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it -- and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop.

Finally, regarding Iran, he differentiates between Persian civilization and current Iranian politics, something that reveals a sensitivity and depth of knowledge that will resonate with people around the world:

Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful. But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.

Many of these proclamations were made in some way or another by President Bush. What is different this time, however, is a president who is already coupling them with meaningful action, and who also comes into office with greater credibility on all of these issues due to his international background and principled opposition to the war in Iraq. Obama said during the campaign that on the day he was elected, the world would begin to see America differently. Interviews like this one will help to make that pledge a reality.