Barack Obama decided to give al-Arabiya the honor of getting his first one-on-one interview as President of the United States, and while that might have been a good strategic decision, Obama’s performance didn’t cash in on it. Instead of offering both openness and a tough assessment of the problems the Arabs have to solve for themselves, Obama seemed more interested in feelings than national security. And in at least one instance, Obama accepted a strange paradigm from his interviewer that underscored his naiveté:
Q: I want to ask you about the broader Muslim world, but let me – one final thing about the Palestinian-Israeli theater. There are many Palestinians and Israelis who are very frustrated now with the current conditions and they are losing hope, they are disillusioned, and they believe that time is running out on the two-state solution because – mainly because of the settlement activities in Palestinian-occupied territories.
Will it still be possible to see a Palestinian state — and you know the contours of it — within the first Obama administration?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state — I’m not going to put a time frame on it — that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.
And, look, I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved. And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves? And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? And if we can keep our focus on making their lives better and look forward, and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past, then I think that we have an opportunity to make real progress.
But it is not going to be easy, and that’s why we’ve got George Mitchell going there. This is somebody with extraordinary patience as well as extraordinary skill, and that’s what’s going to be necessary.
I included the entire question and answer to give the entire context of this exchange, in which Obama faltered badly. The main driver of Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t settlements, and hasn’t been for some time. It’s the rocket launches coming from Hamas in Gaza, and to a lesser extent from Islamic Jihad there as well. How can we know this? Israel hasn’t had to conduct a military exercise in the West Bank for years, where the settlements are located. On the other hand, they’ve had to conduct several military operations in Gaza in the few years since Ariel Sharon dismantled the settlements there.
Obama should have reminded his interviewer of those facts. That’s a big failure, and a missed opportunity to get the record straight in the Arab world. And there’s more, as Scott Johnson points out:
Q: President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, “war on terror,” and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people — Islamic fascism. You’ve always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators. And is this one way of —
THE PRESIDENT: I think that you’re making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations — whether Muslim or any other faith in the past — that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name.
And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda — that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it — and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down.
But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.
Again, the naiveté comes through clearly in this exchange. The terrorist organizations themselves have a wide base of support among Muslims in the Arab world, as well as with the Iranian government, if we include Hamas and Hezbollah. Obama makes al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah sound like the Baader-Meinhofs or the tax-resister militias here in the US. They’re not. They’re well-funded and strongly supported, at least until that support starts costing people more than they’d like. Terrorism doesn’t begin and end with AQ at all, and if Obama doesn’t understand that, then he’s extremely ill-prepared for his task in the next four years of stopping terrorists, a task at which Bush succeeded after 9/11.
Unlike some others, I didn’t mind Obama’s decision to grant al-Arabiya this honor. Obama has a great deal of popularity in the Muslim world, and that can be a great asset to the US if used properly. Obama could have taken the opportunity to explain some hard truths while extending the hand of friendship. Instead, he took the opportunity to pander.