2009/01/29

President's TV interview with al Arabiya

President Obama's first television interview was with the station al-Arabiya (The comedian Jon Stewart did a "startled" double-take on "learning" that Obama's first interview was primarily aimed at a foreign audience), and it contained some very refreshingly realistic views:

"[Peace between Israel & Palestine is] 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.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."


Obama made it clear here "I'm not G. W. Bush, I'm not going to make wildly unrealistic promises" and also, that the US is not going to try and solve this problem all by itself. Many other actors will be called in to assist.

Some realistic talk here:


"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. 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."

Meaning let's not let those who are sympathetic to the Palestinians get carried away with enthusiasm. Yes, this President is more realistic than the last one was, but only in a relative sense.

Still, this is an encouraging promise:


"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."

Obviously, "contiguous" means only as far as the West Bank is concerned and no mention is made as to how to deal with Israeli settlements. Does "
freedom of movement" mean that the President wants to take down Israeli highways running through the West Bank and dismantle the Israeli checkpoints? It's impossible to say at this point, but this is a reasonably good and hopeful start.


Q: How concerned are you and -- because people sense that you have a different political discourse. And I think, judging by (inaudible) and Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden and all these, you know -- a chorus --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I noticed this. They seem nervous.

Q: They seem very nervous, exactly. Now, tell me why they should be more nervous?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they've been using against me before I even took office --

Q: I know, I know.

THE PRESIDENT: -- 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.

In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed. And what they've been doing is destroying things. And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction.

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.

What Obama is doing here is that he's differentiating "hard" military power from "soft" persuasive power. Judging by their words, al Qaeda appears to recognize that he's got a point, that "soft" power poses a real threat to al Qaeda's ability to act as the savior of the Muslim world.

And again, this sort of language is extremely refreshing after the past eight years:


"But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions.
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"We're going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital. We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world."

As well, this next statement is extremely refreshing after hearing propagandistic nonsense terms like "Islamo-fascism" come from our former President:


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. You've always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators. And is this one way of --

THE PRESIDENT: 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.

Unfortunately, I have to reduce President Obama's grade for the interview from an "A" to a "B" for the following statement on Iran:


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.

Iranian politicians have said Israel is a terrible country and that, like the white dominance of South Africa, that the Israeli oppression/occupation of Palestine should simply cease to exist, but it's simply not accurate to say that the state of Iran has officially threatened Israel.

Iran has claimed, though not proven, that it's pursuit of nuclear power is for strictly peaceful purposes. Obama should at least acknowledge this complication and qualify his statement rather than to simply state baldly that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. And as Juan Cole points out:


And the main thing American politicians seem to mean when they accuse Iran of supporting terrorism is that it backs the Lebanese Hizbullah Party, which hasn't done anything that qualifies as international terrorism for a decade at least. (Being a national liberation movement and working against the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory was not terrorism in international law.) At least, Obama put the 'support of terrorism' clause in the past tense (was he thinking of the 1980s and early 1990s?) and avoided the odd rhetoric of Condi Rice, who branded Iran the biggest supporter of terrorism in the world; wouldn't that be al-Qaeda?

But this was a good ending:


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. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.

A positive review of the interview from Foreign Policy.

YouTubes of interview: one two

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