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Works and Days

Dancing Among Landmines—The Obama Al-Arabiya Interview

January 27th, 2009 - 8:40 pm

President Barack Obama is being praised for choosing an Arabic TV network for his first formal television interview on the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel. I think we can all appreciate the thinking behind such bold outreach, given that the media at home has chortled to the world that our new guy’s unusual background, in sort of Zen-fashion, has befuddled the radical Islamic movement.

The subtext of our satisfaction has been that Obama—African-American, son of a Muslim father, erstwhile resident of Muslim Indonesia, with Hussein as his middle name—makes it far harder for the Arab Islamic world to typecast America unfairly as the Great Satan than would be true in the case of an evangelical, Texas-drawling, hard-core conservative Chief Executive like good ‘ole boy George Bush.

True enough, no doubt.

But triangulation is a touchy art and it takes the genius of a Dick Morris cum soulless Bill Clinton to pull off such disingenuousness. In less experienced hands it can be explosive and turn on its user. And Obama will soon learn the dangerous game he is playing. Consider:

1) When abroad it is not wise to criticize your own country and praise the antithetical world view of another—especially if yours is a democratic republic and the alternative is a theocratic monarchy that has a less than liberal record on human rights, treatment of women and homosexuals, and tolerance for religious plurality.

But here’s what Obama said:

“… 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…Well, here’s what I think is important. Look at the proposal that was put forth by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia…I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage…to put forward something that is as significant as that. I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace.”

The end, if unintended, result is that the Saudi King comes across as courageous, while the U.S. President and State Department (e.g., “the United States”) are portrayed as dictatorial-like (“dictating”) in the region.

2) An unspoken rule of American statesmanship is not to be overtly partisan abroad. And in Obama’s case it is high time to arrest the campaign mode, cease the implied “Bush did it” (which ipso facto has a short shelf life), and begin dealing with the world as it is, rather than the world you feel was unfairly presented to you by someone more blameworthy in the past. But again consider:

“But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task… 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… but I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I’m speaking to them, as well.”

Perhaps. But once again, the impression comes across as ‘past America bad /present and future America good.’ (Even the senior George Bush learned that lesson at home with his serial “kinder, gentler nation” [e.g., kinder than what?]). And nothing is offered here (other than our lack of a colonial past) about the actual impressive record: amazing American good will in saving Kuwait, objecting to the Kuwaiti deportations of thousands of Palestinians, speaking out against Russia on behalf of the Chechens, trying to save the Somalis, bombing a Christian European Serbia to save the Kosovar and Bosnian Muslims, helping the Afghans against the Soviets, removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and trying to invest a $1 trillion in fostering democracy in their places, billions in disease relief for black (and often Muslim) Africa, timely help to the Muslim victims of the tsunami, and liberal immigration laws that welcome in millions of Arabs and/or Muslims. I could go on but you get the picture left out that America, far better than China, Russia, or Europe, has been quite friendly to the Muslim world.

Instead the supposition is that somehow the culpability is largely ours—and therefore ours to rectify. In fact, the widespread hatred in the Islamic world, manifested, and sometime applauded, on September 11, was largely a result of the failures of indigenous autocracy—whether in the past Pan-Arabist, Baathist, theocratic and Islamic, Nasserite, or pro-Soviet statism.

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