Dr. Walid Phares
President Obama's TV Interview on al Arabiya
February 9, 2009
For his very first interview after the inauguration, President Barack
Obama chose to grant the Saudi-funded, Dubai-based al Arabiya TV the
first media salvo of the new presidency. According to Hisham Melhem, the
veteran journalist who conducted the interview, it was the White House
who decided so, after discussions about approaching "the situation in
the Muslim world especially after closing Guantanamo and starting the
withdrawal from Iraq."
Per a Melhem statement to AlArabiya.net, selecting an Arab
channel to kick off the administration's "new direction" is part of a
communications strategy: sending a message to the other side while
slowly preparing the American public for what is to come. Hence, this
interview, which will precede a flurry of forthcoming statements and
moves, is only the beginning of a massive change to hit US Foreign
Policy and through it the entire so-called War on Terror.
In short, the orchestra has begun playing the tunes of ending the latter
war, in pieces, by slices and methodically. The American public, the
majority of which has voted for the Obama agenda knowingly, is now
invited to understand the successive steps of the implementation. For
many citizens may realize that the results of these policies and the
realities in the region do not necessarily match the theoretical
pronouncements of the stated agenda. Because of our constitutional
mechanisms, we have four years, perhaps even three only, to appreciate
these decisions and measure the outcome. So let's analyze this benchmark
Hisham Melhem is a seasoned Lebanese-born journalist, whose work I
followed since my younger years in the old country. His comprehensive
articles in the Pan-Arabist al-Safir daily reflected the
positions of one of the two camps during the 15 year-long conflict that
ended in 1990: the alliance between the PLO, left wing forces and Arab
Nationalists versus the Pro-Western right wing and Lebanese nationalist
front. His writings, even though representing his own camp, were always
intelligent and of strategic nature.
Years later, Melhem became the correspondent of al Nahar Lebanese
daily in Washington DC, a centrist liberal newspaper whose publisher was
a friend of mine, the slain Jebran Tueni, a Member of Parliament who was
assassinated by Syrian intelligence in 2005. In the last few years,
Melhem was assigned the task of directing the office of al Arabiya TV,
a direct competitor to al Jazeera TV, the Qatari-funded and
Muslim Brotherhood-inspired famous network. In short, the journalist who
conducted President Obama's first interview in office is experienced in
the region's affairs and knows exactly what its leaders want from the
United States. The American President, too, knows exactly what kind of
messages he wants to be sent to these leaders: Hence the importance of
the interview. It is the first benchmark of Obama's new direction for US
policy in the region.
The conversation had two distinct parts, one dealing with the
Palestine-Israel issue and the other part addressing a new narrative
toward the Arab and Muslim world. The structure of the interview, the
selection of the topics and obviously the answers are very revealing as
to the current analysis inside the new White House and at the State
Department. The ideas are already shaped and the input of the
traditional Middle East Studies establishment is evident.
In this new direction in thinking, it is perceived that by addressing
grandiosely the question of "Palestine," a massive swaying of hearts and
minds will take place in the Arab Muslim world to the advantage of
American image in the region. This assertion that US mishandling of the
"Palestinian question," which is often read as "unilateral and
unconditional support to Israel," being the root cause of all anti
Americanism is almost a sacred parameter in the Middle East Studies
elite, but also in many ruling quarters in the region. And from
Palestine to the broader region, another "sacred' assertion is that the
narrative used by the previous administration is "the" reason for why US
image is doing so poorly.
In my book The War of Ideas, the two equations are shown to be
only stereotypes built by the pounding of the vast propaganda network of
Jihadism and their apologists in the West. In The War of Ideas, I
drew a much wider, more complex web of factors that sculpts the road to
America's demonization in the world. I'll revisit that topic at many
future opportunities, but now back to the presidential interview, with
regard to the promise "to do better on Palestinian matters."
Hisham Melhem's first question sets the track for the answer:
"You've been saying that you want to pursue actively and aggressively
peacemaking between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Will you be
proposing ideas, pitching proposals, parameters, as one of your
predecessors did? Or just urging the parties to come up with their own
resolutions, as your immediate predecessor did?"
The question as we see already frames the forthcoming answer: President
Clinton got it right in the 1990s and President Bush got it wrong in the
post 9/11 era. The first one reached out to Palestinians and Israelis
and the second didn't, according to al Arabiya TV.
In fact, the question misses a big elephant in the room, forcing the
incumbent US president to do the same. The issue is not anymore between
"Palestinians" and "Israelis," as it was for decades, it is between
Iranian-backed Hamas and Israel. M. Melhem, who has actually stated the
latter fact even clearer than I did on many Arab channels for few years
now, served President Obama with a classical question from the early
1990s, as if Hamas butchering of the Peace Process and of their
Palestinian opponents is simply out of the equation.
Nevertheless, our president responded accordingly:
"George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the
few people who have international experience brokering peace deals."
The equation has morphed from how much the Iranian-Hamas axis will
resist the Peace Process to the "capacity" of the US envoy and
"brokering peace deals." Do we read here that the seasoned
Irish-Lebanese-American politician is tasked in fact to reach a "deal"
with whoever can make the "process" move forward and that is, of course
Tehran, or is he sent to the region to re-work an old process? The
president said he "told him to start by listening, because all too
often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of
these issues -- and we don't always know all the factors that are
involved. So let's listen."
Since we already know what is the position of Israel, Mahmoud Abbas,
Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the Oslo agreements; and since we know that
Israelis and the Arab League have already consented to discuss the
Saudi-sponsored Arab initiative, who should we listen to in the region?
Who hasn't spoken yet? Who can make the "deal" possible? I would suppose
it is those who are blocking the Peace Process, ineluctably Iran and its
Hence, former Senator Mitchell will be meeting with all those who have
already accepted the settlement, but in fact he will be listening to
those who continue to reject peace. President Obama indicated something
like that when he said:
"He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he
will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific
In short we want to know Iran's price for the deal.
President Obama then said:
"I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of
the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's
happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These things are interrelated. And what I've said, and I think Hillary
Clinton has expressed this in her confirmation, is that if we are
looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab
world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new
partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think
that we can make significant progress."
This sophisticated statement, which accurately educates readers and
viewers in the U.S as to the web of intertwined connections among all
these players, can however go in two different directions with regard to
policies. Indeed, as connoisseurs of the region's geopolitics know,
Hamas is the stumbling block in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the chief opposition to normalization on the
southern borders. Assad supplies both organizations while being an ally
to Khamanei. Syria and Iran control war and peace in the Levant and can
make things hellish in Iraq.
Last but not least, the Taliban are the shaker of stability in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran can also further destabilize Kabul's
western frontiers. Had Obama expanded on his thoughts, he most likely
would have drawn a similar tableau, with the invaluable intelligence
estimate he receives daily. But the beef is not in the description,
rather it is in the prescription. Do we believe his assessment is to
reaffirm what the previous administration already knew, but never acted
on? Or do we read a mental preparation of our public for these "new
choices" to come? Unless proven wrong in the near future, I sense our
President is preparing us -- not just the Israelis -- for what is to
His next sentence is revealing:
"I believe that they will be willing to make sacrifices if the time
is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."
While referring to Israel, it sounds if President Obama is also talking
to his own people about "sacrifices" regarding the region: instead of an
open-ended war on terror, the new US policy will also grab any "serious
partnership on the other side," Iran, Syria, or even the Taliban; but of
course, "if the time is appropriate."
The shaping of the new direction is carefully crafted in psychological
narrative: no "dictating," more "listening" and setting aside
"preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last
several years." Gradually, this deconstruction of the (said) "wooden
discourse" of the former administration aims at reassuring the "other
sides" that no more ideological projects for the region, including
naturally the so-called "spread of democracy." Future US policy will be
adaptable to "achieving breakthroughs" in stalemates. The grand designs
Mr. Melhem shrewdly uses a central theme in the president's narrative,
let alone from the title of his book: "There are many Palestinians
and Israelis who are losing "hope." Will it still be possible to see a
Palestinian state -- and you know the contours of it -- within the first
Obama administration?" The question, especially as it utters the
term "contours" (borders of the Palestinian state to come) gives the
president an opportunity to share his long term view on the two states
solution, unlike all his predecessors. "I think it is possible for us
to see a Palestinian state that is contiguous, that allows freedom of
movement for its people, etc."
likely the bulk of the American public didn't catch the vital word,
"contiguous;" while most certainly alert strategists in the region may
have read the message differently. President Obama may have been
thinking about the geographical continuum within the West Bank,
signaling the necessity of removing many Israeli settlements. But in the
mind of many others, Hamas or not, the concept of contiguity for a
Palestinian state means simply that Gaza and the West Bank should be
also linked territorially. So far, we haven't seen any architecture of
borders between the forthcoming two states, Israel and Palestine that
ensures that sort of "contiguity" for both. It will have to be one or
the other. Is there a shift in US policy on these explosive territorial
matters? The next speeches may enlighten us further.
About Dr. Walid Phares
Dr. Walid Phares is the Director of Future Terrorism
Project at the Foundation for the
Democracies in Washington, a visiting scholar at the European Foundation
for Democracy and the author of the War of Ideas. Dr. Phares was one of the
architects of UNSCR 1559. He is also a Professor of Middle East
Studies at Florida Atlantic University and a contributing expert to FOX News.
Dr. Phares teaches Global Strategies at the National Defense
University. Professor Phares’
is the author of two critical books on the Islamofascist threat to Western
Civilization, "Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West”
and "The War of Ideas: Jihadism