Marc Lynch

The fallout from Obama’s interview: day one

The fallout from Obama’s interview: day one

 With a day’s perspective, Obama’s al-Arabiya TV interview still looks like a home run.  The response from the Arab world has been mostly positive, with the skepticism I described yesterday interwoven.  The new tone and the early outreach (not waiting for an Abu Ghraib moment, as Bush did) are important as signals of his intentions, but — as Obama himself pointed out — he’ll be judged by his administration’s deeds and not just the words. Most commentators therefore tempered their enthusiasm with a wait and see attitude to see if he delivers on these new ideas.  Others noted, as they did throughout the campaign, that the U.S. will continue to pursue its interests no matter who is the president.

For all the positives, there were some things missing and some already looming problems. Here are a few:

  • The missing stops in the listening tour. Obama’s comments gave a grand launch to George Mitchell’s inaugural tour of Arab capitals. But as several Arab commentators point out, if he just goes to talk to Israelis, Mubarak, the Kings Abdullah, and Fatah then he’s not going to hear anything surprising. Doha, which has positioned itself as a pivot of the "rejection" camp but remains a close U.S. ally, would be an extremely useful addition to his itinerary.  And at some point he’s going to need to talk to Hamas if he hopes to explore genuinely new solutions. The time may not be quite right for that yet, and there’s going to be tremendous resistance to it, but without some form of Hamas buy-in Obama’s peace initiative will fall back into the same Clinton and Bush traps. Mitchell’s trip to Cairo should include strong encouragement for the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah which Cairo is trying to broker. If it results in some form of Palestinian national unity government (of the type which the Bush administration helped destroy after 2006) — still far from a done deal —  then the U.S. must be prepared to talk to it.  
  • The Arab world remains sharply divided. The Gaza crisis exposed and exacerbated the intense political divisions in the Arab world, and the ‘dueling summits’ of the last week of the war came to symbolize the impotence of the official Arab order. The Kuwait summit produced a show of reconciliation, with the Syrians and Qataris sitting down amicably with the Egyptians and Saudis.  This was an important show but still just a show, and few believe that the sharp divides have been truly bridged.  Reactions to American outreach will be filtered through these political differences (al-Jazeera barely mentioned Obama’s interview with its Saudi rival). As noted above, it appears that Mitchell’s first trip will primarily run through one camp — the so-called "moderates" (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Fatah) — but Obama’s outreach has to engage the "rejection" camp as well if it hopes to make any real difference.
  • Israeli politics are not encouraging.  From what I’ve seen, the Gaza crisis has strengthened Likud and made its electoral victory more likely. That could create real tensions with the Obama administration’s aspirations for rapid movement and a new direction, to say the least. If Netanyahu were to win and shift official Israeli policy, this will also impact the American politics of Arab-Israeli negotiations in dangerous ways. That doesn’t have much to do with Obama’s interview, of course, but the filter of the coming Israeli election will clearly affect Mitchell’s reception. 
  • Hillary Clinton might — and I do mean "might" — not be reading from the same script.  Less than a day after Obama made his carefully nuanced remarks, news accounts leaped all over comments by Clinton supporting Israel’s "right to defend itself" which seemed more overtly pro-Israeli than Obama’s formulation.  Commentators sharply attuned to such codes immediately noticed.  This may well be just a media-generated controversy — with Arab and American media exaggerating a minor difference for the sake of their preferred storylines– or something real. But regional actors will be keenly watching for any sign of daylight between Obama, Mitchell and Clinton — and if they see it, American diplomacy will be undermined. 
  • Missing topics.  The interview noticably avoided two major issues:  Iraq (on which they "ran out of time"), and democratic reform. That’s a pity. 

On a side note, I was pleased that a number of other commentators picked up on my point about Obama’s decision to not use the U.S. Arabic TV station al-Hurra for the interview.  Some of the analysis of the Arab media market is off-base (al-Arabiya certainly isn’t the top-rated station in the Arab world, nor is it particularly "reformist") but the broader point about al-Hurra’s expensive irrelevance is an important one as the new administration reviews American international broadcasting and public diplomacy commitments.