27 January 2009

Obama Talks to the Arabs

The President has given an interview with al-Arabiya, one of the popular satellite TV networks in the Middle East, and the White House has issued its own transcript of the chat. I wonder whether Obama's skin color keeps Arab viewers from experiencing some sense of deja vu. Eight years ago, many people in the Middle East applauded the ascent of George W. Bush. Believing him to be his father's son, and remembering that the elder Bush was relatively evenhanded (by modern U.S. standards) in his Middle East dealings, Arabs expected a better deal from W. than they were getting from Clinton. They probably would have been disappointed even if al-Qaeda hadn't attacked New York, since W's "freedom" obsession was bound to bias him in favor of "the only democracy in the Middle East." Now they hope that Obama will be a change for the better from Bush.

But what was different, an Arab viewer might wonder, in what Obama says today compared with what W was saying around this time in 2001? The President is always going to tell you that he believes in peace and a fair shake for all sides. He'd be foolish not to say, as Obama has, that he hopes Arabs will be better off under his watch. But what assurance can Obama give his Arab audience that he won't turn into another W. if something goes wrong or if Osama pulls off another stunt? The only signal they might interpret hopefully is Obama's remark that he is specifically concerned with destroying the al-Qaeda organization and is less interested in a broader war against some vaguely or conveniently labeled "Islamic extremism" or "islamofascism." He seemed to be telling the interviewer that he would not regard every single "Islamist" in the region as an enemy of America, so long as Islamists did not do terrorism.

I may be an interloper in this conversation as part of an American audience, but the bit that made me snort was the President's promise that the U.S. would do more listening and less dictating in the Middle East. That's not because I scoff at "listening" as a rule, but because the Middle East does need to be dictated to, albeit preferably by the U.N. rather than the U.S. The problem is not dictation as such, but that American dictation tends to go all in one direction. It's not that the world should listen rather than dictate to the Arabs, but that we should dictate to the Israelis as well as to the Arabs. If their squabbles threaten global stability, then the international community ought to be able to dictate to both or all sides that they should settle their troubles or have them settled from without. "Listening" sounds nice, but it's a fallacy to assume that if we listen enough, any conflict can be resolved without coercion. How long, after all, have we listened to Israelis and Palestinians? How likely is it that George Mitchell, acting as Obama's ears, will hear something new over there? But he should go through the motions at least once, if only so the President can say at some point that we have listened enough.

But have the Arabs listened enough to Obama? They've seen him on TV now, and those with resources can research what he said on the campaign trail last year. The smart ones should be able to figure it out for themselves, but what are they to do with such knowledge? There isn't going to be the sort of diplomatic revolution that could happen in 18th century Europe when the whims of one king replaced those of another. Democracy imposes greater consistency on American foreign policy. If Arabs keep expecting a great change in their favor from each new administration, then they're no better than Americans who perpetuate the Bipolarchy and expect real change. The Arab people had better adjust themselves to this reality or seek new arrangements. Maybe they can interest another superpower to wage war on Zionism in return for resources. Good luck with that.

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