Obama’s Public diplomacy

Editor’s Note:  mregypt is an Egyptian  who lives in Cairo. 

I cannot find any other reason for the fuss that’s made for Obama’s speech except one:  that he came after Bush. I hardly noticed any attention to the interview in the Arab street, as for the Arab media I only noticed a passing reference here.   If anyone attempted to talk with one of the top Arab commentators about this interview I am confident that you will hear answers like “the US  has fixed interest that are not made up only by the president”.  For example,  in a previous post I mentionedthat  Heikal, who is a highly respected voice in the Arab world, thinks that Obama knew about the Israeli attack on Gaza. 

I think the only problem in the Arab world would be to understand what did Obama mean by things like “reaching out to the Muslim world” or “resuming the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis” –who, by the way, have been negotiating since the establishment of the state of Israel 60years ago– or being somebody who “listens. ”  Listen to whom?  To the despotic Arab governments of  Egypt and Saudi Arabia for instance? Or the peoples of these countries who have no legal channels of expression? I even wonder why the Arabs would be impressed when Obama says that we are “going after terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians”?  First thoughts for an average Arab citizen is that he’s talking about Hamas or Hezbollah,  both  of which are greatly respected and supported in the Arab world and considered legitimate popular resistance, contrary to what the Americans might think. 

Furthermore, choosing Al-Arabiya is puzzling. If you want to approach the Arab world, do you choose a channel known to be friendly to the US and a voice of the Saudi royal family?   The interlocutor was very cautious, posing vague questions about Obama’s holistic approach towards the region and his new paradigm, or about his opinion about the Palestinians and the Israelis who are frustrated with the current conditions. I wonder what kind of questions are these? What kind of answer is expected for a question like “Are we expecting a different paradigm?” Please! Was that a question? And then comes the typical question that all the US presidents answered before “Will it still be possible to see a Palestinian state?”  Take a look on this answer:

I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved. And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves? And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? And if we can keep our focus on making their lives better and look forward, and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past, then I think that we have an opportunity to make real progress.

In my opinion,  for an average Arab citizen this answer means nothing.  Why haven’t the situation for the Palestinians improved?  Whose  fault is it? More importantly, what situation are we talking about here:  the economic or the political?   Not only that, he’s supposed to be approaching the Arab world and listening to their people but at the same time asserts that the Israeli security is paramount and adds that there are some people who believe in creating peace after the recent onslaught that took place.  I wonder whom?  Livni?  Barrack? He is basically saying that the Palestinians are inferior to the Israelis. 

 I am surprised why does he think that Zawahiri or Bin Laden are confused? He emphasized that their ideas are bankrupt and leading only to death. But is that actually true? For the Iraqis, for instance, death, poverty and illiteracy came with the American invasion not with the ideas of Bin Laden.  Its true that under Saddam they lived in poverty.  But from  the Iraqi perspective, its ridiculous to compare the situation under Saddam to what took place after the US invasion. What about the Palestinians? Do they also think that shifting to peace and negotiations is the best alternative? For many people in the Arab world what Bin Laden and Zawahiri are doing is Jihad not suicide, and most believe  they are legitimate when they are attacking the US forces in Iraq or Pakistan or Afghanistan. In fact, I cannot think of any moderate religious leader or intellectual or commentator that would say what Al Qaeda’s doing in any of these places is illegitimate. Dealing with Bin Laden or Al Qaeda is only possible by addressing the social and cultural situations and backgrounds they came from and represent.  Thus if Obama’s job is to “communicate with the Arab world that the United States is not your enemy” this entails a totally different approach than “listening and communicating” with the Arab world. In conclusion, the US has policies and strategies in dealing with the Arab world and Middle East and only a shift in these policies and strategies could lead to some sort of rapprochement between the two entities.