February 6, 2009
President Obama's TV interview on al ArabiyaBy Walid Phares
For his very first interview after the inauguration, President Barack Obama chose to grant the Saudi-funded, Dubai-based al Arabiya TV the first media salvo of the new presidency. According to Hisham Melhem, the veteran journalist who conducted the interview, it was the White House who decided so, after discussions about approaching "the situation in the Muslim world especially after closing Guantanamo and starting the withdrawal from Iraq."
Per a Melhem statement to AlArabiya.net , selecting an Arab channel to kick off the administration's "new direction" is part of a communications strategy: sending a message to the other side while slowly preparing the American public for what is to come. Hence, this interview, which will precede a flurry of forthcoming statements and moves, is only the beginning of a massive change to hit US Foreign Policy and through it the entire so-called War on Terror.
In short, the orchestra has begun playing the tunes of ending the latter war, in pieces, by slices and methodically. The American public, the majority of which has voted for the Obama agenda knowingly, is now invited to understand the successive steps of the implementation. For many citizens may realize that the results of these policies and the realities in the region do not necessarily match the theoretical pronouncements of the stated agenda. Because of our constitutional mechanisms, we have four years, perhaps even three only, to appreciate these decisions and measure the outcome. So let's analyze this benchmark interview.
Hisham Melhem is a seasoned Lebanese-born journalist, whose work I followed since my younger years in the old country. His comprehensive articles in the Pan-Arabist al-Safir daily reflected the positions of one of the two camps during the 15 year-long conflict that ended in 1990: the alliance between the PLO, left wing forces and Arab Nationalists versus the Pro-Western right wing and Lebanese nationalist front. His writings, even though representing his own camp, were always intelligent and of strategic nature.
Years later, Melhem became the correspondent of al Nahar Lebanese daily in Washington DC, a centrist liberal newspaper whose publisher was a friend of mine, the slain Jebran Tueni, a Member of Parliament who was assassinated by Syrian intelligence in 2005. In the last few years, Melhem was assigned the task of directing the office of al Arabiya TV, a direct competitor to al Jazeera TV, the Qatari-funded and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired famous network. In short, the journalist who conducted President Obama's first interview in office is experienced in the region's affairs and knows exactly what its leaders want from the United States. The American President, too, knows exactly what kind of messages he wants to be sent to these leaders: Hence the importance of the interview. It is the first benchmark of Obama's new direction for US policy in the region.
The conversation had two distinct parts, one dealing with the Palestine-Israel issue and the other part addressing a new narrative toward the Arab and Muslim world. The structure of the interview, the selection of the topics and obviously the answers are very revealing as to the current analysis inside the new White House and at the State Department. The ideas are already shaped and the input of the traditional Middle East Studies establishment is evident.
In this new direction in thinking, it is perceived that by addressing grandiosely the question of "Palestine," a massive swaying of hearts and minds will take place in the Arab Muslim world to the advantage of American image in the region. This assertion that US mishandling of the "Palestinian question," which is often read as "unilateral and unconditional support to Israel," being the root cause of all anti Americanism is almost a sacred parameter in the Middle East Studies elite, but also in many ruling quarters in the region. And from Palestine to the broader region, another "sacred' assertion is that the narrative used by the previous administration is "the" reason for why US image is doing so poorly.
In my book The War of Ideas, the two equations are shown to be only stereotypes built by the pounding of the vast propaganda network of Jihadism and their apologists in the West. In The War of Ideas, I drew a much wider, more complex web of factors that sculpts the road to America's demonization in the world. I'll revisit that topic at many future opportunities, but now back to the presidential interview, with regard to the promise "to do better on Palestinian matters."
Hisham Melhem's first question sets the track for the answer:
The question as we see already frames the forthcoming answer: President Clinton got it right in the 1990s and President Bush got it wrong in the post 9/11 era. The first one reached out to Palestinians and Israelis and the second didn't, according to al Arabiya TV.
In fact, the question misses a big elephant in the room, forcing the incumbent US president to do the same. The issue is not anymore between "Palestinians" and "Israelis," as it was for decades, it is between Iranian-backed Hamas and Israel. M. Melhem, who has actually stated the latter fact even clearer than I did on many Arab channels for few years now, served President Obama with a classical question from the early 1990s, as if Hamas butchering of the Peace Process and of their Palestinian opponents is simply out of the equation.
Nevertheless, our president responded accordingly: "George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals."
The equation has morphed from how much the Iranian-Hamas axis will resist the Peace Process to the "capacity" of the US envoy and "brokering peace deals." Do we read here that the seasoned Irish-Lebanese-American politician is tasked in fact to reach a "deal" with whoever can make the "process" move forward and that is, of course Tehran, or is he sent to the region to re-work an old process? The president said he "told him to 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."
Since we already know what is the position of Israel, Mahmoud Abbas, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the Oslo agreements; and since we know that Israelis and the Arab League have already consented to discuss the Saudi-sponsored Arab initiative, who should we listen to in the region? Who hasn't spoken yet? Who can make the "deal" possible? I would suppose it is those who are blocking the Peace Process, ineluctably Iran and its acolytes.
Hence, former Senator Mitchell will be meeting with all those who have already accepted the settlement, but in fact he will be listening to those who continue to reject peace. President Obama indicated something like that when he said: "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." In short we want to know Iran's price for the deal.
President Obama then said:
This sophisticated statement, which accurately educates readers and viewers in the U.S as to the web of intertwined connections among all these players, can however go in two different directions with regard to policies. Indeed, as connoisseurs of the region's geopolitics know, Hamas is the stumbling block in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the chief opposition to normalization on the southern borders. Assad supplies both organizations while being an ally to Khamanei. Syria and Iran control war and peace in the Levant and can make things hellish in Iraq.
Last but not least, the Taliban are the shaker of stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran can also further destabilize Kabul's western frontiers. Had Obama expanded on his thoughts, he most likely would have drawn a similar tableau, with the invaluable intelligence estimate he receives daily. But the beef is not in the description, rather it is in the prescription. Do we believe his assessment is to reaffirm what the previous administration already knew, but never acted on? Or do we read a mental preparation of our public for these "new choices" to come? Unless proven wrong in the near future, I sense our President is preparing us -- not just the Israelis -- for what is to come.
His next sentence is revealing: "I believe that they will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side." While referring to Israel, it sounds if President Obama is also talking to his own people about "sacrifices" regarding the region: instead of an open-ended war on terror, the new US policy will also grab any "serious partnership on the other side," Iran, Syria, or even the Taliban; but of course, "if the time is appropriate."
The shaping of the new direction is carefully crafted in psychological narrative: no "dictating," more "listening" and setting aside "preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years." Gradually, this deconstruction of the (said) "wooden discourse" of the former administration aims at reassuring the "other sides" that no more ideological projects for the region, including naturally the so-called "spread of democracy." Future US policy will be adaptable to "achieving breakthroughs" in stalemates. The grand designs are over.
Mr Melhem shrewdly uses a central theme in the president's narrative, let alone from the title of his book: "There are many Palestinians and Israelis who are losing "hope." Will it still be possible to see a Palestinian state -- and you know the contours of it -- within the first Obama administration?" The question, especially as it utters the term "contours" (borders of the Palestinian state to come) gives the president an opportunity to share his long term view on the two states solution, unlike all his predecessors. "I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, etc."
Most likely the bulk of the American public didn't catch the vital word, "contiguous;" while most certainly alert strategists in the region may have read the message differently. President Obama may have been thinking about the geographical continuum within the West Bank, signaling the necessity of removing many Israeli settlements. But in the mind of many others, Hamas or not, the concept of contiguity for a Palestinian state means simply that Gaza and the West Bank should be also linked territorially. So far, we haven't seen any architecture of borders between the forthcoming two states, Israel and Palestine, that ensures that sort of "contiguity" for both. It will have to be one or the other. Is there a shift in US policy on these explosive territorial matters? The next speeches may enlighten us further.
Dr Walid Phares is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad.