Obama on al-Arabiya

And the first formal interview of Obama’s presidency goes to… Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Saudi-owned, Dubai-based al-Arabiya television.

With his Middle East envoy George Mitchell beginning a several-country tour of the region, Obama told Melhem Tuesday that “the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away.” Of Mitchell: “What I’ve told him is to start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating – in the past on some of these issues… So let’s listen.” A call to dialogue, for sure—and also, perhaps, a yank on the reins of wildly galloping expectations. Specifically: “We cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them.”

The dialogue-not-dictation overture isn’t just collegial. It represents a public ratification of what much of its Arab audience already knows (and has perhaps resented the U.S. for failing to acknowledge adequately), which is that we’re not in a position to dictate much of anything to Israel, Palestine, or neighboring nations who would play a role in any eventual settlement.

“It’s impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Barack Obama choosing an Arabic satellite television station for his first formal interview as President,” enthuses Marc Lynch, a public diplomacy scholar and a member of Foreign Policy’s new all-star cast of bloggers. Maybe so, but the choice is only symbolically important. Obama has given millions of interviews, and there’s no historic import attached to the venue a president chooses for his first post-inaugural sit-down—except to the media organization chosen.

Given that, Obama made one of the only possible choices that was newsworthy in itself. In doing so, he appeared to be reaching out to an entire region, rather than just, say, MSNBC. And Lynch, who did “some policy work” for the Obama campaign, has been arguing since at least 2003 that the U.S. needed to change its hectoring tone and begin “taking Arabs seriously.” He wrote then in Foreign Affairs:

The first step toward improving the United States’ image… must be figuring out how to address Arabs and Muslims effectively… opening a direct dialogue with the Arab and Islamic world through its already existing and increasingly influential transnational media.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg caught up with Melhem yesterday to ask whether he thought the interview signaled a “shift in rhetoric or a shift in substance” from the Bush years. Melhem wouldn’t affirm the latter, but found it encouraging that Obama mentioned bettering the lives of ordinary Palestinians. He called the interview “a shift in approach on the tone vis-à-vis Palestinian suffering. He showed that he understands the need for dignity and a place to call their own.”

The Washington Post, also invoking the tone/substance motif, calls the Arab world’s reaction so far “largely positive”; Lynch continues to gather opinion from Arab commentators. It remains to be seen whether the interview was an unequivocal victory for public diplomacy. But it was hand extended to those willing to put down the remote.

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Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review