Obama's first foreign interview sets new priorities.
Today, President Obama (I like the way those words sound together) gave his first interview to a foreign source. And his choice-- el-Arabiyah, could not have been a better one. He discussed a range of issues-- including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, terrorism, mutual respect and the international political situation.
While what he said was important, the simple fact that he chose an Arabic news outlet for his first interview speaks volumes. It's hardly a secret that the majority of the foreign policy challenges facing the United States right now involve the muslim world, nor is it a secret that both because of longstanding history and the relatively recent actions taken by the Bush administration, relations between America and the muslim world are at historically low levels. So in granting the interview, President Obama has made it clear that he wants to change that, and develop a long term relationship in which the United States respects and works towards a peaceful future involving the muslim world.
Let's start with the Israeli-Palestinian situation since that is a constant irritant that underlies every other facet of relations between America and muslim countries. Long time readers of this blog know that I've always been a supporter of Israel and of the right of Israel to exist. However, the one-sided policy of the Bush administration, which failed to challenge Israel in anything they did while only blaming the Palestinians for anything that happened, and which further didn't bother to even try to achieve a peace deal until Bush was vainly searching for any kind of a legacy during his last year in office, did not do Israel any favors. It created an endless cycle of war, and one which Israel will continue to be mired in until there is a lasting peace that involves the creation of a Palestinian state. President Obama pretty much said as much in his interview today.
Let me repeat that-- if Israel wants peace there is only one way to achieve it, and that is to create a Palestinian state without any Israeli settlements on its territory. And the recent Israeli actions in Gaza, while their cause can be justified (to end Hamas rocket attacks) have resulted in huge numbers of civilian deaths and more and more reports that Israeli troops committed some truly disturbing actions (like the report on NPR this morning of soldiers shooting a homeowner with no ties to Hamas in the face in front of his children, and later an ambulance driver being pulled out of his ambulance and forced to lie face down with a gun stuck in his neck, and then being told to leave the area despite having been called to a home with wounded children inside.) Israel is a democracy, and in a democracy you have to be willing to air some rotten garbage, and there is some here that will need to be aired. And then investigated and corrective action taken. As a supporter of Israel, I am willing to say it is time for Israel to take that action.
Further, an unnoticed story of the recent war (as well as the one two years ago between Israel and Hezbollah) is one which went unnoticed precisely because nothing happened-- which is the story itself. During both the Israeli-Hezbollah and Israeli-Hamas conflicts there was little or no violence (beyond a few demonstrations) in the West Bank. Israel was often able to claim they could not create a Palestinian state under Yassir Arafat because he was either unable or unwilling to call off his own militants. And in fact history seems to suggest they had a point, since even during negotiations there were often attacks on settlers and soldiers in the West Bank as well as terrorist attacks inside Israel. But this time there were practically none (despite calls by Hamas for a third intifada in the West Bank), so clearly Mahmoud Abbas is able and willing to police his own territory. Which means that Israel has no good excuse now for not working with him to create an independent Palestine with open borders and no Israeli settlements. The trip by George Mitchell to the middle east, and statements by both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama indicate that they will push negotiations designed to hasten the creation of a Palestinian state (as well as create a lasting cease-fire in Gaza.)
President Obama also said that if our enemies in the region (and he specifically mentioned Iran) are willing to unclench their fist, they will find our hand extended in friendship. I believe that this is also long overdue. Ever since the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis of thirty years ago, relations between the U.S. and Iran have been frosted. Further, if Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, can one blame them after George Bush named them a member of the 'axis of evil,' and then invaded one of the other 'members?' Like a diplomat from North Korea (the third member) famously said after referring to President Bush's threats, "Of course we have a nuclear program." Only a Bush would have needed to be reminded of a basic fact-- if you threaten someone they will assume you may not be bluffing (as if Iraq didn't prove that in Bush's case) and will work to arm themselves accordingly. In a word: DUH! Maybe with the new approach President Obama can make some progress on getting Iran to quit working towards nuclear weapons. Maybe he can't. But given that they are already to the point where it would be all but impossible to take out their decentralized, deeply buried program, we are at least better off if we have a dialogue with Iran (after all, history shows that we can survive a nuclear-armed opponent, like the Soviet Union.)
Beyond that, Obama has shown that he will be a President whose foreign policy won't be focused on Europe first. That in itself is a huge change, and represents the fact that the world has changed. Europe is a fine place but it is at the end of the day only a peninsula on the end of the Asian continent. By speaking first to people from the part of the world where we have the biggest challenges right now, President Obama is making it clear from the outset that he will be engaged with the world, not just those who think like us.