Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mending global fences

He’s been president of the United States for all of 200 hours, give or take, and Barack Obama has been busy frustrating the critics and the professional polwatchers who keep thinking they know his every move.

The Guantanamo closure announcement, for example, was completely expected, the fulfillment of a longstanding Obama campaign pledge.

It’s what came next that caught people off guard: an action thick with an inescapable symbolism, one with possibly unbelievable dividends. On Monday President Obama conducted his first formal one-on-one interview with a major news organization, but it wasn’t granted to one of the Multiple Wise Men at the American broadcast or cable nets, or to Katie Couric at CBS.

President Obama sat in the White House with Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya, a Saudi-supported TV news channel based in Dubai, and a news organization with mainstream standing in the Muslim world.

The alphabet networks of the United States were left standing with their eyes against the keyhole of the Oval Office door, while inside that office, the leader of the United States put the concerns and fears of the Muslim world front and center.

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This latest break with modern presidential tradition wasn’t so much a diss of the U.S. media as it was a bid for reasserting a telegenic, conciliatory American presence on the world stage. The president took his case as a world leader directly to the world’s Muslims, presenting the United States as a nation willing to act again as an honest broker (and in sharp distinction from the last eight years, an involved honest broker) in the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict; to begin the process of ending U.S. military presence in Iraq; and to continue the healing begun, however symbolically, when Obama ordered Gitmo closed.

It was an olive branch attached to a powerful message: the days of reflexive marginalization of Muslims, by a government bent on ostracizing and criminalizing them, are over.

Obama’s was also a personal message for the other everyday people of the Middle East. “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. … My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy,” the president said in an act of outreach that would have been unthinkable under the Bush regime. “[T]he same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20, 30 years ago, there’s no reason we can’t restore that.”

“My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” Obama said.

After his exclusive, Melhem told he was touched by the president. "You can feel the authenticity about him," he told the Web site of Time magazine. "The interview was his way of saying, 'There is a new wind coming from Washington.' Barack Obama definitely sees the world differently from a man named George W. Bush."

As they concluded the interview and shook hands, Melhem recalled, Obama told him, “There will be more.”

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The bipartisan aspect that is shaping the Obama administration may also slowly be yielding political dividends; there’s reason to believe that hands-across-the-water can mean hands-across-the-aisle, too.

Vin Weber, a former Minnesota Republican congressman who advised the Obama White House on Middle East relations, gave the new president high marks for his appearance.

“There are decades and decades of skepticism of the West ingrained in psyches in people of the Arab world, and that's not going to change on a dime simply because we have a new president,” Weber told the National Journal Online.

“What we have is an opening, an opportunity to change the minds of people,” Weber said. “And I think the president has taken the right first steps, and if they see that we're persistent and consistent, I think that we can slowly, over time, change minds.”

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The spectre of terrorism was addressed by the president in ways that made some in the U.S. media recall President Bush’s tendency to demonize. Obama used the word “nervous” to describe the al-Qaida leadership (and Melhem agreed with Obama’s assertion, using the word himself), and the president described al-Qaida’s ideas as “bankrupt.”

It put some wags in mind of Bush’s swaggering “bring ‘em on” and “dead or alive” comments during the height of the Iraq war. But there was more at work in Obama’s comments.

Steve Clemons, the publisher of the foreign policy blog The Washington Note, got the wider implications. “What’s important to understand ‘— which George Bush never did understand — is that terrorists are actually political actors trying to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of certain publics. And Obama, rather than just trying to kill terrorists … is trying to steal their audience.”

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In fact, and all respect to Clemons, President Obama is doing more than that. With this overture to the mainstream sensibilities of ordinary people in the Muslim world, the president has begun the process of depriving terrorists of the emotional oxygen required for terrorism to flourish.

His tone, his personality, his experience and his ethnicity all combine to undercut the rhetoric of separation without which terrorism cannot survive. This may be the first display of the global reassertion of America’s values and character — what Atlantic columnist Andrew Sullivan has called this nation’s “soft power” of diplomacy and culture.

Beyond the impact of an unprecedented interview seen around the world, the world’s sense of Obama as conciliator may already trickling into the global psyche:

Last week Agence France-Presse reported that a barber in Khartoum, Sudan, a man who had recently opened a barbershop in the city, named the shop for Barack Obama, adorning the fa├žade of the shop with the likeness of the American president.

"I opened the shop just before the U.S. presidential election in November, but I waited for Obama's victory before naming it after the president-elect," said the shop owner, Muntasser Jacob. "If the Republican John McCain had won the election I would not have named my shop after him."

When fences are torn down, around the neighborhood or around the world, they’re rebuilt one hammer and nail at a time.
Image credit: Obama interview still: Al-Arabiya via The Associated Press. Obama shop: Unnamed photo agencies, via China Daily Web site.

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