The young Obama administration has sent yet another signal that it intends to improve the public diplomacy ties strained by the Bush administration: His very first major television interview was granted, not to an American network or even one of our European allies but rather to Al-Arabiya, the controversial Middle Eastern network founded six years ago as a competitor to Al Jazeera.
ABC’s Jake Tapper (“President Obama Does First Formal TV Interview as President with Al-Arabiya“) and AP’s Paul Schemm (“Obama chooses Arab network for first TV interview“) highlight this symbolic gesture while WaPo’s Michael Shear and Glenn Kessler and others bury their lead, focusing on the remarks themselves.
This is a powerful bit of symbolism, if a politically risky one. Quin Hillyer, blogging for the American Spectator, observes, “If I’m an Israeli, I would run, not walk, early and often, to vote for Binyamn Netanyahu for president there, because there ain’t no way that Obama is gonna support Israel when push comes to shove — so, therefore, the Israelis will need their leader to be a guy who is willing to do the pushing and shoving on his own regardless of whether the American president gives his okay. ” Most other bloggers commenting on this are less hyperbolic but the move is indeed sparking some debate at home.
Daniel Larison, blogging for The American Conservative, gets it about right in my judgment.
This is different, but it doesn’t mean very much one way or the other. At most it means that President Obama was serious when he made irenic remarks in his Inaugural directed to Muslims, but I suspect this has zero significance when it comes to policy. Like the appointment of George Mitchell, which represents an exception to the general rule of administration personnel on regional policy, giving an interview to Al-Arabiya is a conciliatory gesture designed to try to make up for the reality of U.S. policy. It is the sort of conciliatory move that Obama believes he can make because he is confident in his own “pro-Israel” bona fides, as well he might be considering the make-up of his Cabinet, staff and Middle East policy team, just as Obama’s general acceptance of national security ideology gives him the flexibility and the political cover to critique and oppose individual policy decisions.
This Al-Arabiya interview is most likely a case of attempting to “re-package” or “re-brand” the same policy in a more attractive way, which assumes that Arab and other foreign publics are not reacting negatively to the substance of U.S. policy but only to its presentation.
To be sure, the interview was substantive, with lines like, “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” But, lest we forget, the Bush administration went out of its way, including in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to make the same point, including repeating over and over that Islam was a “religion of peace,” a line with which Bush was repeatedly beaten over the head by less conciliatory conservatives.
For that matter, the Clinton administration made much the same noise. That didn’t stop al Qaeda from forming and twice declaring jihad on the United States and its allies or, for that matter, staging repeated attacks on American targets and beginning planning for the 9/11 attacks. Recall, too, that Bush didn’t begin his “war on terror” until after said acts of terrorism.
It’s hard to imagine a more conciliatory president than Jimmy Carter, who spent much of his presidency and post-presidency working for Middle East peace. Recall that it was he who declared the Middle East a vital American interest and he who was in office when the modern anti-American movement in that region was born with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
So long as the United States is dependent on Persian Gulf oil, considers Israel among its strongest allies, supports the Saudi royal family, and otherwise sees itself having interests worth defending in the Middle East and South Asia — which is to say, for the entirety of the foreseeable future — American policy will be anathema to radical forces in the region. No amount of happy talk will change that fact.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we shouldn’t continue this type of outreach to moderate Muslims. We absolutely should. And, as Thomas Barnett and others argue, we should back up the talk with policies that contribute to the development of prosperity of the people who live there. But don’t expect that any of that will have significant, short-term impact on anti-Americanism and its unhappy byproducts.
Below is a video excerpt from the interview:
The official transcript is available at Al Arabiya, which touts it as “President’s first interview since taking office.”
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.