Quin Hillyer complains about Obama’s first television interview, which Jake Tapper reports will be with Al-Arabiya. 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. More basically, critics of this interview must not understand Obama at all. Obama likes negotiation and consensus-building, and he likes to try to explain one group’s situation to another. This is the peril of his bridge-building instinct that I mentioned long ago: the attempt to convey a message from one side to another is routinely mistaken as a concession to the other side. This is why some other conservatives (usually those who ended up voting for him) made a very different kind of mistake in assuming that Obama sympathized with certain conservative policy proposals that he did not dismiss out of hand.
What stood out to me in the interview is that Obama clearly seems to be looking to hit the “reboot” function in regards to the Middle East, and seems to be of the mind that enough people on both sides have realized that the status quo is unsustainable:
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.***
And so what we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there’s a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs.***
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.
And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda — that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it — and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down.
But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.
Overall, it seemed to me to be a very humble interview (example: “And so what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating…”), as if he is extending an olive branch to all parties involved. Whether or not they will be willing or able to look past what has already happened is the key to whether or not anything productive can move forward, and I have no idea if that is possible, given the history of the region. As to Larison’s point, it remains to be seen whether or not our actual policy will change, but what I got out of this interview is that Obama clearly wants to use the early days in his office as a fresh start, a do-over, a chance to start anew. An argument could be made that that is a change in policy, in and of itself.
Greg Djerijan had a great piece up the other day on what a new foreign policy would look like, with a number of points, and point #3 focused on the Israel/Palestine issue (you should read the whole thing):
If we mean to cause real change then, we need to book-end this sorry chapter, and quickly. President Obama must immediately move to inject competence and strength into the uppermost reaches of American diplomacy, while also changing the substance and tone of America’s Middle East policy, not least, by recognizing the needs of both sides, to help restore our reputation as ‘honest broker’, rather than, in David Aaron’s Miller’s words, too often acting as “Israel’s lawyer.” (While Miller’s op-ed title might sound somewhat inflammatory to some, it is really anything but. Miller was merely calling for more pragmatic, even-handed handling of important negotiations, hardly controversial or incendiary fare, at least if one is sober-minded and interested in results-oriented diplomacy).
In this vein, I believe it a very positive signal that George Mitchell has been appointed special Middle East envoy (apparently with responsibility mainly for the Palestinian-Israeli brief, but also the Israeli-Syrian and Lebanese-Israeli tracks, all of which will doubtless demand much dialogue with the Egyptians and Saudis as well, in particular). I would recommend that Mr. Mitchell appoint a deputy (Dan Kurtzer, for example, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel) bringing additional energy and more direct on the ground experience, to complement Mr. Mitchell’s gravitas, negotiating skills, and disciplined legal temperament, while also not being shy to fully use the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs as well (to include the many talented and dedicated professionals in that Bureau).
And once the immediate, and inevitable, crisis management clean-up of the recent wreckage in Gaza is accomplished (first we need to help, if through proxies, mediate schisms as between Hamas and the PA, as well as more directly liaise with differing Israeli factions set to squabble mightily during the impending political silly-season there, where we may well end up dealing with the re-emergence of Prime Minister Netanyahu after the elections), thereafter the Taba precedent should be speedily used as launching pad, of sorts, with additionally other bold strokes considered, like asking the Israelis to free Marwan Barghouti, so as to help restore Fatah as credible counter-party to Hamas, and thereafter lead the negotiations on behalf of Palestine with the Israelis. Only a leader with charisma can close a deal of such magnitude and controversy, and Abu Mazen doesn’t have what it takes, particularly after Israel’s latest operation, given these grim (if woefully predictable) tidings.
In short it is high time to cease the hapless by-standing (pre-Annapolis), or alternately, the empty spectacle (Annapolis), and instead roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of forging a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace without a moment’s delay, and with relentless energy (without getting bogged down necessarily in a months long series of anti-smuggling discussions with the Egyptians, in large part a waste of time given factors such as these, rather than focusing on the larger strategic picture). Such hard toil can and likely will pay-off (see Camp David, Madrid, Oslo, etc), but only if all instruments of American national power are used, and focus, intelligence and intensity are brought to bear consistently from the Presidential level on down, with pressure applied even-handedly to get to the (so elusive, but not impossible) goal-line. This, and follow-through, so that gains (as Madrid and Oslo) are not then frittered away. As I said, all things being equal, the appointment of George Mitchell alone is a strong start by the President and his Secretary of State, but the effort will need to be all hands on deck, hard-charging and even-handed (that phrase again), with bold ‘out-of-the-box’ strokes employed on occasion.
This appears to be much of what Obama is trying to do. Good luck with that.
*** Update ***
I should probably add that as usual, I don’t know what the “right” way forward in this mess is, but I am hopeful that for once, we will not confuse our short-term interests with our long-term goals. One of the key points of Bacevich’s Limits of Power (yes, I know, I have never reviewed it even though I promised I would two months ago) was that for the past forty years, we have continuously made short-sighted decisions that have had horrible long-term consequences, and this region is a case study in that. I am optimistic about Obama’s language regarding looking at the Israeli/Palestine problem from a regional perspective, rather than just in isolation.