On January 26, President Obama addressed the Arab and Muslim world directly, in an interview with Hisham Melhem on Al-Arabiya. Needless to say, it was great. On January 12, there was a panel discussion in DC organized by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) - which I work for - and the Carnegie Endowment. I looked back at the transcript and I found something odd and rather amusing. Right after Hisham Melhem himself offers his remarks to the audience, Scott Carpenter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, gets up and says:
In my written recommendation for what President-elect Obama should be saying to the Middle East, I suggest rather boldly that he in his first few months have an exclusive interview with Hisham on Al-Arabiya...
The crowd laughs, perhaps thinking such a thing quite unlikely. One can dream! Here's the video of Carpenter (go to 29:25). (Carpenter first made his recommendation in a POMED publication released earlier this month). Who knows - perhaps an Obama advisor was in the audience or heard about it after and thought, well, hmm, "that's actually a pretty good idea." Indeed it was. The more important point, however, is that, for too long, we had been used to a president who failed to surprise us, who time and time again confirmed our lowest expectations as well as our greatest fears. The crowd in the audience wouldn't have thought that Obama would choose to speak directly to more than 20 million Arabs so early in his presidency. It had been less than a week, after all.
Obama has introduced a boldness to his presidency. Not a boldness of rhetoric and bluster but a boldness of action and vision. There wasn't a lot of soaring rhetoric in Obama's remarks to al-Arabiya. There was something much more important - a willingness to engage, to listen, and to move toward a dialogue where Arabs are spoken to not as victims or villains, but as partners.