Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Sweet Middle Eastern Nothings

Upon hearing that President Barack Obama sat for an interview with pan-Arab satellite news channel al-Arabiya, my first inclination was to salute him for doing his best to sell U.S. foreign policy to a broad Arab audience.  But then I read the transcript.  Brace yourself – what follows is a series of statements that range from naively optimistic to disturbingly misinformed:

Well, I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away. And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals.

Apparently, my fears have been confirmed: Obama believes that Mitchell’s reputation and experience are sufficient for catalyzing progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.  He is sorely mistaken.  Indeed, the key factor determining the success or failure of an envoy is the extent to which the envoy speaks for the President of the United States himself.  Israelis and Palestinians are most likely to respond to an envoy whose word can be backed by tangible power; political celebrities, on the other hand, will be treated with suspicion, if not ignored entirely.

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.

I get the first part of this statement: Syria and Iran are allies, and they support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which are both in constant conflict with Israel.  But what do Pakistan and Afghanistan have to do with this?  Does Obama think that Taliban fighters are based in Ramallah?  Is Obama confusing the Pakistanis and the Palestinians?  Either way, this is the kind of non sequitur for which the press would have hammered a certain former president ruthlessly.

And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.

Excuse me for asking, but has Obama just established himself as an intermediary between the Muslim world and the American people?  Moreover, is he suggesting that Americans doubt Muslims’ humanity?  Is he suggesting that Americans have sought to prevent Muslims from just “living their lives”?  Again, this whole interview is supposed to be an exercise in public diplomacy – and you don’t sell your foreign policy by saying that your people need to adjust their racist views of others.

…[I]f 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.

Obama talks a lot about working with our allies, but statements like this one make me wonder whether he’s serious.  After all, by mentioning that the U.S. was never a colonial power, he’s reminding al-Arabiya‘s audience that Britain and France – two of our most important allies in formulating Middle East policy at the moment – were.  Of course, Obama probably doesn’t realize that most Arab viewers will readily draw this connection – which is just another reason why this interview was seriously ill advised.

… 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.

Barack Obama ran for U.S. President as the anti-Bush – the candidate who wasn’t going to fight wars for idealistic purposes, such as spreading democracy.  Well, Obama might abhor “stupid wars,” but that hardly makes him a realist: true to his community-organizing roots, he apparently sees impoverished foreigners as one of the many constituencies he represents – right up there with the Americans.

The take-away from this miserable performance is rather straightforward: Obama’s personal charisma cannot mask his utter lack of substance on the Middle East.  Here’s to hoping that Obama can fix this shortcoming before people start listening to what he’s actually saying.