Remember back on the campaign trail when Hillary Clinton said she helped bring peace to Northern Ireland? A bit of fact checking soon revealed that her rather minor role amounted to no more than assisting with “the general atmospherics.” That’s worth keeping in mind while Washington’s foreign policy elite smothers Obama with praise after his appearance on Al-Arabiya.
“It’s impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Barack Obama choosing an Arabic satellite television station for his first formal interview as President,” gushed Marc Lynch in response to the implementation of his own recommendations.
“By most accounts, Obama’s decision — shocking to some, refreshing to others — to talk to the Muslim world in his first formal, sit down press interview hit the ball out of the park,” Steve Clemons said in an equally enthusiastic review.
“We support Israel’s right to self-defence. The (Palestinian) rocket barrages which are getting closer and closer to populated areas (in Israel) cannot go unanswered,” Hillary Clinton said in her first news conference at the State Department.
And there’s the rub. How does the US marry it’s “we can feel your pain” message, with “but it’s OK if Israel inflicts some more”?
For Obama to give his first interview to Al-Arabiya was a positive step in changing the tone of US relations with the Muslim world, but let’s not get carried away. Soothing words provide no relief to the victims of Israeli atrocities committed in Gaza.
Talking to a Saudi-owned television station no doubt went down well with Saudi Arabia’s rulers, but if Obama wants to engage with the largest audience he’ll need to have the courage to go on Al Jazeera. The response of the most widely watched network to Obama’s first step was quite telling. They barely mentioned it.
But if Washington wants to remain close to its old friends in Riyadh, it should also head their advice. Just a few days ago, Prince Turki al-Faisal directed a passionate plea at the new president:
Let us all pray that Mr Obama possesses the foresight, fairness and resolve to rein in the murderous Israeli regime and open a new chapter in this most intractable of conflicts.
It’s nice that Obama has had the experience of living in a Muslim country, that he has Muslim relatives, and that he wants to pursue relations with the Muslim world based on mutual respect. But beyond the atmospherics, the people of the Middle East are looking for substance from America’s new celebrity president. He has a receptive audience, but they’ll only remain open if he can deliver.
Prince Turki laid out what is expected:
President Barack Obama must address the disaster in Gaza and its causes. Inevitably, he will condemn Hamas’s firing of rockets at Israel. When he does that, he should also condemn Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians and support a UN resolution to that effect; condemn the Israeli actions that led to this conflict, from settlement building in the West Bank to the blockade of Gaza and the targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians; declare America’s intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella for countries that sign up and sanctions for those that do not; call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shab’ah Farms in Lebanon; encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace; and support a UN resolution guaranteeing Iraq’s territorial integrity.
Mr Obama should strongly promote the Abdullah peace initiative, which calls on Israel to pursue the course laid out in various international resolutions and laws: to withdraw completely from the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, returning to the lines of June 4 1967; to accept a mutually agreed just solution to the refugee problem according to UN resolution 194; and to recognise the independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, there would be an end to hostilities between Israel and all Arab countries, and Israel would get full diplomatic and normal relations.
What the Saudis know is that they — and the US — are running out of time. George Mitchell’s patience may be an indispensable negotiating skill, but what the Middle East is looking for is Obama’s “fierce urgency of now” — not just the borrowed slogan but words embodied in actions.