Monday, February 02, 2009

US President Obama and the Al Arabiya interview: the Muslim world talks back

The new US administration under President Barack H. Obama has certainly gotten off to a fast start since the inauguration on January 20th. One of the most interesting news stories to develop over the past weeks is the exclusive interview granted by the White House to the Arab news network Al Arabiya. The Al Arabiya TV network is ranked (a distant) Nr. 2 behind the Al Jazeera network amongst Arab and Muslim viewers worldwide.

The Nr. 1 foreign policy challenge that has frustrated many diplomats and world leaders over the past half a century is Der Ewige Krieg (the Forever War) between the Israelis and Palestinians & Co. Many people have watched for decades how presidents, kings, prime ministers and foreign ministers, special envoys and UN bosses, a long and growing list of people that includes some of the best foreign policy minds and diplomats the world has to offer____ all fail in helping these two eternal enemies find a sustainable resolution to their many problems. When US Vice-President Joe Biden made the remark “They’re gonna test this guy…” during the 2008 election campaign, I and many others understood who he meant with ‘they’ and what the greatest foreign policy challenge for the new US administration would be ___ achieving a just and sustainable peace the Middle East. In my opinion it was a very good move that President Barack Obama chose to reach out to the Arab and Muslim world by granting his first TV interview to Al Aribiya.

Extending a hand in peace and pulling back a stub?
A roundup of reactions to President Barack Obama’s words for the Arab and Muslim people of the world

There are a number of good editorials and blog posts commenting on the Al Aribiya interview with President Obama. I’ll start with a blogger roundup of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) opinions at Global Voices Online (the Berkman Center @ Harvard Law School). In the post titled ‘MENA: Reflections on Obama’s Al Arabiya Interview’ Lasto Adri offers a sample of what bloggers who write about Middle East affairs are saying about the interview:

…But The Arabist [based in Cairo], in his “Obama’s TV appearance” post answered Zeinobia’s and Rob’s concerns pointing [out]:

Very good on the Obama team to have made this move, which was necessary, so quickly.

It repairs some, but only some, of the damage caused by his silence on Gaza.

The choice of Arabiya was most probably a decision to appeal to the Saudis, have Obama underline the importance of their Arab Initiative which has been snubbed by Israel and the US under Bush.

Nonetheless Arabiya is problematic - this is the channel dubbed Hibriya (The Hebrew One) because of its coverage of the Gaza crisis and that generally defends the views of Riyadh, Cairo and other problematic US allies. This confirms that Obama will not, like Bush since 2006, go against Egypt and Saudi on domestic issues and there won’t be a rethink of the US relationship with these. But if you thought that would happen, [then] you’re stupid.

Should Obama have gone to Jazeera instead? Perhaps not, for both domestic reasons (the criticism he would expose himself to, even if unwarranted) and because there are genuine US complaints about Jazeera. But at some later point, he should go to Jazeera - especially if it is to pitch a major conflict resolution initiative in the region. At the end of the day, despite its bias, Arabiya is the number two pan-Arab stations. (In many countries, like the rest of the world, Arabs actually watch their national TV stations most.)

Obama’s next move should be to disband al-Hurra. It’s a useless waste of money.

End excerpt________

These are very interesting viewpoints and of course the feedback from the crew of Cairo-based journalists and other contributors at The Arabist is invaluable. Please read the entire post ‘Obama’s TV Appearance’ at The Arabist.

During the jubilation and excitement described in my previous post about the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America it was evident to me that several Arabs and Muslims in my community did not share in the world’s excitement. Only a select few Muslims that I know personally have expressed to me an understanding of what this change in political leadership means for citizens of the US, The Middle East, Africa and Europe. Of course my personal observation may not mean very much since there are 10’s of thousands of Arabs and Muslims that live in this German city. Conversations amongst Muslims here about the Obama presidency are taking place in private homes, in the workplace, in the shops and M√§nnervereins (men’s social clubs) and on college and university campuses. Like people everywhere the Muslim world is wondering if this dramatic change in American leadership will help bring about a much-needed change in relations between the West and the East.

Not surprisingly most of my older Arab and Muslim friends (guys over 50 years of age) do understand the significance of Obama’s election victory. They have told me how deeply moved they were while watching the inauguration of America’s first African American president on television, and how hopeful they are about the chance for new opportunities and promises of change offered by the new US administration. I am especially proud of this small, tight circle of friends from the Middle East and Europe (I am the only American member). We may fight and argue over geo-politics and global issues and crisis, but at the end of the day we always remain friends and courteous to one another. I reckon that this is quite an accomplishment for a group of old war hawks and former enemies.

I do believe that a majority of Muslims in my community remain very skeptical of President Obama being able to bring about any significant change in the Middle East and I would also say that their views represent the views of average citizens across the Arab/Persian region and throughout the Muslim world. Of course there are some people who will never believe that “Americans are not your enemy.” To accept this statement from a US president as truth would be too much of a shock to their system of values and beliefs. Fortunately (I presume) there are only a few people in my own community who or so lost in their beliefs as to think in this way.

President Obama’s appearance on Al Aribiya surely was one of the most significant interviews of a US political leader directed at the Arab and Muslim world in years. Let’s hope that he and other members of his administration make a regular practice of granting access to journalists working for the press and news media worldwide.

One of the better summaries about the Obama - Al Aribiya interview that I have read was written by Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and author of the popular Middle East blog, Abu Aardvark. Marc Lynch wrote the following in his post titled ‘Obama to Arabs: “what you’ll see is someone who is listening”’ published to his new column/blog at

It's impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Barack Obama choosing an Arabic satellite television station for his first formal interview as President -- and of taking that opportunity to talk frankly about a new relationship with the Muslim world based on mutual respect and emphasizing listening rather than dictating. His interview promises a genuinely fresh start in the way the United States interacts with the Arab world and a new dedication to public diplomacy.

In his conversation with the estimable Hisham Milhem (a good choice for an interlocutor), Obama reached out directly to the Arab public via the Saudi TV station al-Arabiya (which shrewdly posted the transcript immediately). It signals the importance of the Middle East to the new President, his commitment to engaging on Arab-Israeli peace, his genuinely fresh thinking and new start with the Muslim world, and his recognition of the importance of genuine public diplomacy.

I admit that I'm a little biased here. How can I not be thrilled that Obama has adopted the policy advice I've been offering since the publication of "Taking Arabs Seriously" in Foreign Affairs back in 2003? And in his first interview anywhere, less than a week into job, no less. I have to admit it feels a bit odd to see an administration doing things right after all these years. But that said, credit should go where credit is due. I do think that this is an extremely significant gambit which signals his commitment to real public diplomacy, his engagement with Middle East issues (repudiating all the pundits expecting him to neglect foreign policy), and his ability to speak in a genuinely new way to the Muslim world.

His remarks hit the sweet spot again and again. He repeatedly emphasized his intention of moving past the iron walls of the 'war on terror' and 'clash of civilizations' which so dominated the Bush era. "My job is to communicate to the Muslim world that the United States is not your enemy," Obama said, emphasizing as in his inaugural address that he is "ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest." And where so much of the Bush administration's 'public diplomacy' was about manipulating and lecturing, Obama begins -- as he should -- with listening: "what I told [Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by let's listen."

He clearly understands that this won't be easy, that there are real conflicts and obstacles and enemies. He obviously recognizes that the Gaza crisis and eight years of the Bush administration have left a heavy toll on America's reputation and credibility. He stressed the importance of engaging on Israeli-Arab issues right away, the need for new ideas and approaches, and the interrelationships among the region's issues that I've always seen as the key to his Middle East policy ("I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated.")

And above all, he understands that words are only the beginning, and that ultimately deeds and policy will determine Arab views of the United States. Public diplomacy is not about marketing a lousy policy -- it's about engaging honestly, publicly, and directly with foreign publics about those policies, explaining and listening and adjusting where appropriate. Obama gets it...

End Excerpt.
Barack Obama's interview on Al Arabiya by Marc Lynch, 01/27/09

TIME magazine’s veteran Middle East and Africa correspondent Scott Macleod has two very interesting posts up at The Middle East Blog since the Al Arabiya interview. Here is an excerpt from the latest on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reaction to President Obama’s outstretched hand:

Ahmadinejad to Obama: Get Lost!
TIME - The Middle East Blog - Jan 29, 2009

Has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad slapped the outreached palm of President Barack Obama, who offered a cautious hand of cooperation to the Islamic Republic?

In his inauguration speech on Jan. 20, Obama said:

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

In his al-Arabiya interview Monday, broadcast throughout the Middle East Tuesday, Obama said:

“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.”

In a speech in Kermanshah on Wednesday, Iranian President Ahmadinejad gave Obama his reply:

“We welcome change provided the change is fundamental and in the right direction. If you talk of change in policies, withdraw your forces from Afghanistan. If you say change in policies, then halt your support to the uncultivated and rootless, forged, phony, killers of women and children Zionists and allow the Palestinian nation to determine its own destiny.”

Ahmadinejad went on to demand that Americans "apologize” to Iranians and compensate them for the “murderous crimes” the U.S. has committed against Iran. He specifically referred to the CIA-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, U.S. support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-1988 and the downing of an Iranian civilian plane and killing of 290 passengers by a U.S. warship in 1988.

Ahmadinejad's aggressive tone was markedly different from the friendly letter of congratulations that Ahmadinejad sent immediately after Obama's election Nov. 4:

“I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate. I hope you will be able to take fullest advantage of the opportunity to serve and leave behind a positive legacy by putting the real interest of people as well as equity and justice ahead and above the insatiable demands of a selfish and unworthy minority.”

What's going on with Ahmadinejad? Three things.
Read more at – The Middle East Blog

Factoid: President Obama’s debut was not the first time a US president or high-ranking US government official was interviewed by Al Arabiya News, so don’t get too excited back home. I believe that former US President George W. Bush appeared several times on the Al Arabiya network, and so did other key members of his administration over the past 8 years.

The Al Arabiya Washington Bureau Chief, Hisham Melham, interviewed former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on May 7, 2007 and this was just one of several appearances by Condoleeza Rice on the news channel. Whether the interview was broadcast/cablecast to US audiences is another thing altogether. Here is a link to the full transcript of the Condoleeza Rice interview: ‘US Secretary of State Rice Interview with Hisham Melham of Al Arabiya. It would be interesting to compare what Dr. Rice said vs. the recent interview with President Obama.

Special Note: I was surprised (shocked) to learn from an article I read at the New York Times last month that the Al Jazeera-English news channel is NOT available to American broadcast and cable TV audiences. According to the NY Times article it is because cable TV networks and programming distributors are either afraid or are unwilling to offer the popular Arab TV network’s programming to their customers.

“My fellow Americans,” to not be able to view the leading Arab 24 hour news channel is bordering on an infringement of your rights to free speech and unfettered access to information. After all, the broadcast headquarters of the network is based in the capital city of one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East (Qatar), so where is the problem? Throughout most of Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa millions of people can zap between CNN International, BBC World, and Al Jazeera (English) in order to get a better ‘world view’ of international TV news and special in-depth reports and features. I would hope that this situation changes for American TV markets and audiences sometime soon, the sooner the better.

Below is a list of articles and editorials that I think may be helpful to my readers in gaining a better understanding of where US policies for the Middle East may be headed under the leadership of President Obama and his new foreign policy and national security team.

Related articles, op-eds and resources

Al Arabiya News Network – English version (Dubai)
Obama reaches Arabs, Muslims via Al Arabiya
Note: article describes how the Arab satellite news network landed the interview and its impact upon Al Aribiya’s international viewing audience
Obama tells Al Arabiya peace talks should resume
Note: article includes a link to the full text transcript of the interview
The Middle East Blog - Ahmadinejad to Obama: Get Lost!
The Middle East Blog - Aaron David Miller: A Reality Check
Mitchell is Ready to Listen, But is Israel?
Obama Mideast Watch: The Al-Arabiya Interview by Scott Macleod
How Al-Arabiya Got the Obama Interview by Scott Macleod
Tearing Down The Walls by Scott Macleod
Note: a good backgrounder about the emergence of independent news media in the Arab world with a focus on the Arab news network al-Jazeera (see

The New York Times
Obama Tells Arab World U.S. Will ‘Start by Listening’ - The Lede Blog
On Arab TV Network, Obama Urges Dialogue
Few in U.S. See Jazeera’s Coverage of Gaza War -
Al Jazeera News - The New York Times Topics

Beet.TV – The root to the media revolution
Al Jazeera Finds Growing Audience for Online Video Clips with Conflict in Gaza, AP Reports

CNN International
'Americans are not your enemy,' Obama tells Muslims -
Dateline Davos: Obama’s World with host Christiane Amanpour
Note: guests include Raila Odinga (Kenyan Prime Minister), Bernard Kouchner (French Foreign Minister), Hoshyar Zebari (Iraqi Foreign Minister), Mohammed Elbaradei (IEAE Director-General), Manouchehr Mottaki (Iranian Foreign Minister), Abdul Rahim Wardak (Afghanistan Defense Minister)
Inside the Middle East with Hala Gorani - “The Middle East Challenge”

Washington Post/Newsweek - PostGlobal: A Conversation about Global Issues with David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria
Articles by Hisham Melham at PostGlobal

Spiegel Online International (English website of Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine)
The World from Berlin: Obama's Open Hand to Muslims
Note: above article includes a roundup of how the German press responded to the US president’s interview on Al Arabiya

Foreign Policy Magazine and FP Passport blog
Obama to Arabs: “what you’ll see is someone who is listening”
Barack Obama's interview on Al Arabiya by Marc Lynch
Note: Mark Lynch is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and author of the popular Abu Aardvark blog
Obama's al-Arabiya interview by Joshua Keating
Note: above post at FP Passport features the Al Arabiya interview video on YouTube
Morning Brief: Obama begins Middle East outreach FP Passport
Barack Obama's secret dinner with Samantha Power, Lee Hamilton, and Indra Nooyi by Laura Rozen

The Council on Foreign Relations
Mitchell's Prospects for Lasting Israeli-Palestinian Accord 'Slim to None' by Bernard Gwertzman - Interview with former top US Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller
From CFR and Saban Center at Brookings - A Mideast Policy for the Obama Administration, 12/02/08
Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (an extensive background guide)
Foreign Affairs magazine - Taking Arabs Seriously by Marc Lynch (Sep/Oct 2003)

The Heritage Foundation
Al-Hurrah Television and Lessons for U.S. Public Diplomacy by Helle C. Dale, 11/18/05

The Daily Kos
Reaction to Obama’s al-Aribiya Interview by John Campanelli

Real Clear Politics
Dancing Among Landmines--The Obama Al-Arabiya Interview by Victor Davis Hanson

Global Voices Online
MENA: Reflections on Obama’s Al Arabiya Interview by Lasto Adri
Note: an excellent roundup of opinions about the Al Aribiya interview from bloggers in the Middle East and North Africa and the USA

Kabobfest (a popular blog on Middle East affairs authored by an Arab-American)
President Obama's first formal interview - with Al Arabiya?

The Palestine Center (an independent Washington DC-based think tank)
Al-Arabiya: President Obama Interview & Highlights
From Gaza to Obama: What Next for the Middle East? by Ali Abunimah
Al-Jazeera interview with leading Arab-American scholars and activists on the eve of the US Presidential Inauguration, 01/16/09
The Palestine Center official blog

Aljazeera-English @ YouTube
Arab Americans Look to Obama, 01/15/09Note: the above video features former CNN International anchor Shihab Rattansi speaking with Dr. James J. Zogby (Arab American Institute), Maya M. Berry (The MidAmr Group), and Amjad Attallah (New America Foundation)

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1 comment:

Egy Azziera said...

First off we would like to congratulate you on your fine public speaking skills. It looks like those who said the Obama Administration would strike while the iron is hot may have been correct, and the Administration may be doing it in a way that does not require them to even get a vote in Congress.