The Obama interview with al-Arabiyya is well summed up by the Angry Arab’s response. But I will add my own views, because his views are his, and though I agree with some I do not agree wholly with others.
1. The interview is not especially daring. It was safe to pick al-Arabiyya, the Saudi broadcaster, as the Bush White House often did. It is interesting that his first interview comes on an Arabic-language channel, but there is very little that was revolutionary or magnanimous about it. It had more to with the fact that Obama did not ring the Saudis in his earliest days, preferring to make calls to the Israelis, Egyptians and Levantine Arabs on the Gaza conflict. His aloofness from them was noticed, and in his interview he attempted to rectify this, speaking well of their peace plan and introducing himself to their Arabs on their station. And note the remarks regarding “Israel’s security”; The whole setup was Washington comfortable. There was little new in the interview and little that was especially gregarious.
2. The most important parts were the ones in which Obama spoke about listening. This was the message he was hoping to put out: The new administration wants to be perceived as more open, less confrontational and more purposeful. This, I think was too understated. The setting was less conducive to this message than it could have been. Had he wanted to speak to the broad mass of Arabs, he should have given his interview on al-Jazeera. This leads into the most irritating element of the interview and the hoopla surrounding it: The entire interview was made up of softball questions, sufficiently broad but utterly uncritical or searching. It was little more than a television spot for Obama for America. It is very possible to exaggerate the symbolism and meaning for US-Arab relations. Many do.
3. Aside from the interview’s content, per se, the timing is especially significant. That this effort has come so early communicates more than most of what Obama said in the interview. (Though the lines “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….” and that the US wants a “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” were especially relevant.) It shows his interest and it shows that the area is a priority and that he would like American interests in the region to be perceived differently than in the past, even if the content of those interests do not change in a substantive way. Rather than neglecting the region and its problems as a whole, the Obama administration is looking to get in right away in an active and credible way, as Obama states in the interview. The jab at al-Qaeda’s lack of a social service wing — highlighting that the group’s main interest is in demolition and not improving the quality of life for Muslims — is well placed. Because Melhem and Obama played soft ball (nay, tee ball) the necessary leap was never made: What about Hezb Allah, which provides many vital services to its constituents? What about others who provide for their people materially but continue armed struggle, terrorism or other hostilities? Who Obama’s opinion of al-Qaeda be different if it provided for Muslims in their daily struggles? The answer would be no, but the flowers around the response would have been different, showing the viewer more and clarifying the American view of such groups.
4. It is too soon to tell what the reaction will be to this effort, but what can be said is that it was a relatively solid start, despite its cushy nature and laziness of placement. The criticisms here are likely harsher than some would like, certainly the misery of the interview is overstated: The point is not to fawn and slobber over the prophet’s the president’s every effort as some like to do. Instead, the point is to push for a more effective and bolder effort. As it stands it is not bold enough. If the Obama administration can muster the will to follow through with its broadest promises. The Mitchell appointment is a step in this direction, but it will remain to be seen how power falls on the various segments of his Middle East team.