As the reader may have noticed, what usually passes for the real world has wasted no time in brusquely overrunning the celebratory mood of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
An hour before the new President was scheduled to meet with them last week, Senate Republicans put their heads together and vowed to oppose his all-important stimulus package, no matter what: a piece of bad faith that, at a stroke, disclosed as futile Obama’s painstaking wooing of Republicans in the earnest hope of issuing in an era of bipartisanship.
Obama had early signed an executive order halting military trials at Guantanamo. But on Thursday a military judge defied the order, refusing to stop the trial of the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the navy destroyer, the USS Cole.
(A Pentagon spokesman assured reporters that, notwithstanding the judge’s defiance, there would be “no ifs, ands or buts” about obeying the President’s executive order and “no proceedings continuing down at Gitmo with military commissions.”)
And on Friday, Reuters reported (under the headline, ‘North Korea, trying to jolt Obama, warns South’) that North Korea had announced it was scrapping all accords with South Korea, a move which seemed sure to ratchet up tension and the chances of a military clash on the North-South border. (This was presumably one of the ‘testings’ of the new president which Joe Biden indiscreetly predicted during the campaign).
Such setbacks almost obscured Obama’s biggest toss of his brief tenure: granting his first post-inauguration television interview to an Arab station, al Arabiya, and the tone and substance of that interview.
In it, Obama promised “a new partnership” with the Muslim world; talked about the need for mutual respect; and avowed America’s willingness “to listen.” Careful to reiterate US support for its ally Israel, he nonetheless implicitly distinguished between Israeli hawks and doves and appealed to the latter, claiming that “there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace [and who] will be willing to make sacrifices if there is serious partnership on the other side.”
Then Obama again quietly drew attention to the suffering of the Palestinians, an almost heretical perspective to America’s pro-Zionist hardliners. “The bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is,” he told al Arabiya, “is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves?”
When the interviewer mentioned the peremptory attacks on Obama by bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, Obama interrupted him saying, “Yes, I noticed this. They seem nervous” (an observation this column has repeatedly made).
Al Qaeda’s ‘nervousness,’ Obama suggested, was due to its ideas being “bankrupt” (a welcome finessing of the Bush administration’s “They hate us for our freedoms”); to their understanding that if and when he closed Guantanamo and withdrew from Iraq, al Qaeda would lose its main recruiting tools; and to the simple fact that “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries… And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But America was not born as a colonial power, and the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.”
Obama has long avoided the phrase, ‘the war on terror.’ Now he emphasized that “the language we use matters,” and promised to “be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda… and people who may disagree with my administration or have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful.”
Lastly (and this, surely, was noted in Tel Aviv), Obama ducked a question as to whether the US would “ever live with a nuclear Iran,” saying only that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons had not been “helpful.” And he repeated the rhetorical construct from his inaugural address, that “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”
Obama’s al Arabiya interview was clearly the start of a campaign to win the hearts and minds of Muslims the world over, already galvanized by the thought of a Hussein in the White House; and if al Qaeda was nervous before, they had a right to be even more nervous now.
So too does al Qaeda’s mirror image, the US neocons with their fantasies of global domination, and their voices in the US media. And indeed the latter wasted no time in jumping all over Obama’s performance. On RealClearPolitics, Victor Davis Hanson characterized the new US President as ‘Dancing among Landmines’ (“When abroad it is not wise to criticize your own country and praise the antithetical world view of another,” and so on).
And The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, the voice of the US Zionist lobby (‘An Unnecessary Apology’), was furious: “America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them,” Krauthammer declared, in places like “Afghanistan and Iraq.” And he went on to resurrect Iran’s 1979 seizure of the US embassy and its staff, before concluding that on al Arabiya last week Obama had indulged in “gratuitous disparagement of the country he is now privileged to lead.”
And so on.
The acid test of Obama’s foreign policy may well come, not in Palestine, after all, but in the Afghanistan/Pakistan mountains. Based there, the Taliban, enablers of al Qaeda, have been ominously regaining ground in Afghanistan while at the same time pushing eastward, towards the heartland of that perilously failing nuclear state, Pakistan; and it’s hard to see how Obama will stop them, given the badly depleted military and economic resources of the Bush-weakened America he now leads.
But among the great law-abiding masses of Muslims everywhere, last week’s al Arabiya interview was likely to be a powerful pitch. Let both Krauthammer and bin Laden burn the midnight oil now figuring how to deal with this new, pacific ‘Hussein.’