Last night, President Barack Obama gave his first formal interview as President to the Arabic news network Al-Arabiya. The choice of the network doesn’t bother me that much, as President Bush gave several interviews to that network. However, to give your first interview as President to a foreign news organization does seem a bit odd to me.
Much of the interview focused on the Israel-Palestine issue, which will be addressed shortly by new US envoy George Mitchell, whom Obama directed to “start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.” And Obama was quite willing to talk about his Muslim background, which was decried as taboo and off-limits during the campaign. I don’t think that the subject should have been avoided as it was, and there was never anything wrong in bringing it up, especially if Obama is going to try to use his heritage to his advantage in Middle East relations.
Extending a hand to the Muslim is indeed important, and it is worth saying, as Obama did, that the U.S. is not the enemy of the Arab world. However, his recollection of good relations with the Arab world 20 or 30 years ago seems a bit naive to me. And the interviewer’s assertion that the Iraq war caused most of the Arab alienation, which Obama did not dispute, is, as the Anchoress points out, not supported by history.
Relations with the Arab nations weren’t that great 20 or 30 years ago. Obama seems to forget the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing in 1983, the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and so on. And the interviewer fails to acknowledge the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombing of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 attack against the USS Cole, and so on. The Iraq war and the Bush administration may have contributed to the hatred, but it existed long before Bush took office and before March 20, 2003.
In a way, it is illustrative of Obama’s thoughts on the war on terror. Al-Qaeda is not an isolated enemy, and terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah have state sponsorship from Iran and strong support among many in the Arab public. Waging the battle against terrorism is unfortunately going to take more than assuring reasonable-minded Arabs that we don’t hate them.