As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obama's Charm Offensive In The Arab World

President Obama's tendency to dialogue with those not disposed to him may be a hindrance when dealing with Republicans, but in the arena of public diplomacy it's going to be a great help. Obama sat down with Al-Arabiya television yesterday, not a US front but a real Arab network, and made a call for dialogue and peace.

In an interview with one of the Middle East’s major broadcasters, President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that “the Americans are not your enemy.” He also said “the moment is ripe” for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The interview with Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language news channel based in Dubai, signaled a shift — in style and manner at least — from the Bush administration, offering what he depicted as a new readiness to listen rather than dictate.

It was Mr. Obama’s first televised interview from the White House and the first with any foreign news outlet.

A full transcript of the interview is here. It's wonderful to have someone who is sensitive to the concerns of the world, who will apply principles but also intelligence and a recognition of the full stakes to bring a better relationship forward. This answer about new Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is in the region today, is in particular very astute.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away. And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals.

And so what I told him 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. He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.

Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. 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.

And it's going to be difficult, it's going to take time. I don't want to prejudge many of these issues, and I want to make sure that expectations are not raised so that we think that this is going to be resolved in a few months. But if we start the steady progress on these issues, I'm absolutely confident that the United States -- working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region -- I'm absolutely certain that we can make significant progress [...] 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.

That's just a brilliant answer. It speaks to the knowledge Obama has that all people have common hopes and common dreams, and that through dialogue and personal expression we can move mountains. This part, discussing the importance of language and how we cannot demonize Islam because of those who pervert the faith for their own ends, is also good.

I don't think Obama is being naive, though recent events have made it very difficult for him. The Israeli war on Gaza complicated this public diplomacy launch in many ways, particularly in making the possibility for early peace talks less likely. And if Bibi Netanyahu wins the Israeli elections, as expected, his support for additional settlements in the West Bank could be extremely stabilizing (as could today's roadside bombing which may complicate the truce in Gaza). However, for the moment, Obama's interview last night is a triumph, as Marc Lynch explained.

I admit that I'm a little biased here. How can I not be thrilled that Obama has adopted the policy advice I've been offering since the publication of "Taking Arabs Seriously" in Foreign Affairs back in 2003? And in his first interview anywhere, less than a week into job, no less. I have to admit it feels a bit odd to see an administration doing things right after all these years. But that said, credit should go where credit is due. I do think that this is an extremely significant gambit which signals his commitment to real public diplomacy, his engagement with Middle East issues (repudiating all the pundits expecting him to neglect foreign policy), and his ability to speak in a genuinely new way to the Muslim world.

His remarks hit the sweet spot again and again. He repeatedly emphasized his intention of moving past the iron walls of the 'war on terror' and 'clash of civilizations' which so dominated the Bush era. "My job is to communicate to the Muslim world that the United States is not your enemy," Obama said, emphasizing as in his inaugural address that he is "ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest." [...] And above all, he understands that words are only the beginning, and that ultimately deeds and policy will determine Arab views of the United States. Public diplomacy is not about marketing a lousy policy -- it's about engaging honestly, publicly, and directly with foreign publics about those policies, explaining and listening and adjusting where appropriate.

This is an extension of Dr. Susan Rice's prediction of direct diplomacy with Iran. Ultimately, we not only have to talk to our adversaries but create conditions of mutual respect so that those talks can actually be fruitful. All of this has the extremist forces in the Muslim world very unnerved. They don't quite know how to react to Obama.

Soon after the November election, al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader took stock of America's new president-elect and dismissed him with an insulting epithet. "A house Negro," Ayman al-Zawahiri said.

That was just a warm-up. In the weeks since, the terrorist group has unleashed a stream of verbal tirades against Barack Obama, each more venomous than the last. Obama has been called a "hypocrite," a "killer" of innocents, an "enemy of Muslims." He was even blamed for the Israeli military assault on Gaza, which began and ended before he took office.

"He kills your brothers and sisters in Gaza mercilessly and without affection," an al-Qaeda spokesman declared in a grainy Internet video this month.

The torrent of hateful words is part of what terrorism experts now believe is a deliberate, even desperate, propaganda campaign against a president who appears to have gotten under al-Qaeda's skin. The departure of George W. Bush deprived al-Qaeda of a polarizing American leader who reliably drove recruits and donations to the terrorist group.

Obama will be judged on actions, and Al Qaeda will have every opportunity to gain recruits if he, say, keeps on killing civilians with airstrikes in Pakistan (I'll return to that). Right now, however, I'd say he's going about this very well, and a frustrated Al Qaeda is an ineffective Al Qaeda.

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