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.
Such repression and failed economic policies, coupled with the sudden ability of a long-suffering populace in a globalized world to fathom that things were bad in the Middle East but no so bad elsewhere, led to growing anger and frustration. That state megaphones (in a devil’s bargain with radical Islamists) preached that the real culprit of general Muslim misery was neither Islamic terrorism nor state dictators nor gender apartheid nor religious intolerance nor state-run economies, but solely the fault of America and the Jews hardly helped.
We should also remember that the Bush record was often quite good: we have not been hit in over seven years; Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation was stopped; Libya gave up its nuclear program; Syria is out of Lebanon; Hamas and Hezbollah have suffered a great deal of damage as a result of their aggressions; there are constitutional governments at work in place of the Taliban and Saddam; the leadership of al Qaeda is scattered and depleted and its brand is diminished in Iraq. The fact that Middle East authoritarian governments might not like all of that; or that radical Muslims find this disturbing; or even that the spokesmen for the unfree populations of the Arab world object—simply does not change the truth. I wish President Obama better appreciated that simple fact, because he surely is a beneficiary of it.
3). Beware of the dangerous two-step. For nearly two years the unspoken rule of the campaign (ask former Senator Bob Kerry or Hillary Clinton herself or talk-show host Bill Cunningham) was that mentioning Obama’s Muslim ancestry was taboo. It was illiberal to evoke his Muslim-sounding name or his Indonesian ancestry, as if one were deliberately trying to suggest his multicultural fides made him less appealing to the square majority in America. But Obama apparently himself is immune to such prohibitions—at least abroad. If he appreciates the off-limits landscape at home, overseas it is suddenly to be showcased to reemphasize his global, multicultural and less parochial credentials. E.g., it comes off as something like: ‘between you and me—typical Americans could not relate to you the way I can—even though back in America to even suggest that I am not typical is sometimes the greatest of sins—albeit in the manner I adjudicate.’ Consider again:
“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. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries…The largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith — and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers — regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.”
4) At some point, soaring rhetoric makes banality the harder to accept. For all the talking about path- breaking new/old envoy George Mitchell, and the new President’s background, and the novel sensitivity, Obama offered nothing new on the Middle East and Iran, because (1) there is very little new to be offered; and (2) George Bush, apart from the caricatures, was by 2004 about as multilateral as one can be; consider the Quartet, the EU3, the UN efforts at international disarmament with Iran, the use of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Coalition in Iraq, the efforts to promote constitutional government in the Middle East, and on and on.
There is a danger here that Obama’s hope and change on the Middle East will start to resemble his hope and change on new governance in Washington: utopian promises about absolutely new ethics, followed by the same old, same old as exemplified by the ethical problems encountered by Geithner, Holder, Lynn, Richardson—and by extension Blago, Dodd, Frank, and Rangel. Again, saintly rhetoric only highlights earthly behavior.
I am glad Obama confounds the radical and hostile Islamic world, if it is in fact true that he does. But we are witnessing a delicate balancing act in which he seems to be saying to us “I am best representing you by distancing myself from you and your past”.
Again, that may well work, but also in time may prove not to be what Americans thought they were voting for. So a final Neanderthal thought: some of us would like our President in calm, polite and diplomatic tones to emphasize the past positive Middle East work of his predecessor Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush. He should make the case that the United States has tried hard and will try hard again to promote peace in the Middle East, but that certain fundamental facts make that awfully difficult, and often are beyond our control, resting largely in the decisions that others make for themselves—and the inevitable reactions that will follow from a liberal democracy like our own, faced with clear signs of religious intolerance, illiberality, violent aggression, and complicity in the promotion of terror as a political means. In other words, I think Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Pakistan—and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and others—know exactly what are they doing and thus the problems that arise between us transcend occasional and unfortunate smoke ’em out/bring ’em on lingo.
Just a modest thought.