After the Al-Arabiya Interview, What Obama Must Now Do in the Middle East

01/29/2009 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Monday, President Obama, for his first major interview, spoke to the second largest Arabic satellite channel in the world. His comments to Hisham Melhem were impressive for both their honesty and restraint. But did this important gesture to the Muslim world come too soon? Heather Hurlburt, at Democracy Arsenal, my blogging home, writes that "a speech should follow some substantive initiatives, not precede them." I'm of the "show-not-tell" public diplomacy school of thought too, but I also think rhetoric is quite important in the Arab and Muslim world independent of what follows it.

Rhetoric binds us. Raising expectations, as Obama did on Monday, forces us to at least consider the prospect of meeting them. Rhetoric also increases the cost of inaction, because it threatens to widen the gulf between words and deeds, which, in turn, damages our credibility. Raising the costs of inaction is a good thing, because it propels us toward action.

In a recent paper I wrote for the Progressive Policy Institute on what a new vision for the Middle East would both sound and look like, I discuss a few things which I think will be vital for the new administration. First of all, U.S. policy toward the region must move away from crisis management and toward a more coherent, long-term approach that matches means with ends. A question worth asking is "what do we want the Middle East to look like in 20 years?" and then work backward (this thought experiment is harder than you think). This is not simply about changing policies, but, rather, changing the assumptions that fuel American policy in the first place.

After all, it would be easy to assume that the Bush years were an aberration in an otherwise proud history of successful engagement with the Middle East. If only this was true. In reality, American policy has been consistently self-defeating under administrations of both parties for more than five decades. Anti-American violence and terrorism - not to mention the general instability plaguing the region - is fueled by long-standing grievances, both real and perceived. A new Middle East strategy must be premised on a long-term effort to seek out root causes and, where possible, address them. To bring the discussion back down to ground-level, there are four tangible things I think policymakers should focus on in particular:

• De-militarizing the fight against terror by putting more money into smart-power initiatives.
• Elevating democracy promotion through aid conditionality.
• Engaging Islamist groups and finding ways to integrate them in meaningful political processes
• Promoting Turkish accession into the European Union.

These prescriptions may seem somewhat narrow, but that is, in part, the point. These are four things that can be done. More importantly, these prescriptions all revolve around the idea of empowering Arabs, at the grassroots level, to begin to play a larger role in their societies. The Gaza crisis has exacerbated the gulf between a small coterie of ruling elites, and the rest of populace. They have different religious visions, and different political visions. The regimes are allied with us, but the people are angry at us. As Marc Lynch notes:

It's no surprise to anyone that the Bush administration has left a tattered American image in the broader Middle East. Approval ratings for U.S. leadership range from 4% in Syria, to 6% in Egypt, 12% in Saudi Arabia, 13% of Palestinians, 16% of Iranians, and 25% of Lebanese (down from 40% three years ago).

The more this gap grows, the more we may see genuine conflict emerge in countries which are supposedly stable, like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria. There must be a process of reconciliation between these opposing trends (leaders vs. their people, or, to an extent, secular vs. Islamist) - and the only way this can (or should) be done is through peaceful, democratic mechanisms which are able to absorb these competing societal demands.

In short, a re-orientation of U.S. policy should be viewed through the prism of Arab societies rather than Arab regimes. This means shifting support from governments to publics, by treating Arab populations as moral and political agents in their own right, not as subjects but as citizens with legitimate demands. Already, by directly speaking to millions of Arabs and Muslims on Monday, Obama has brought them into a new process of engagement. Andrew Sullivan writes

What Obama is doing is appealing over the heads of Muslim leaders directly to Muslim populations. I cannot think of any other president with the same kind of personal credibility in such a critical time.

Neither can I. Let us hope that Obama continues speaking to the people of the Middle East, and listening carefully to what they have to say. He can move them. He can inspire them to action. Think about that for a moment: an American president has the capability and the power - and, for now, the credibility - to influence millions of people in the very region that we are told hates America most.