President Barack Obama presented a humble and conciliatory face of America to the Islamic world Monday in the first formal interview since he assumed office, stressing his own Muslim ties and hopes for a Palestinian state, and avoiding a belligerent tone — even when asked if America could "live with" an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya Network was a dramatic piece of public diplomacy aimed at capitalizing on the new American president's international popularity, though it balanced America's traditional commitment to Israel, whose security Obama called "paramount.'
"I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries," Obama said, according to a White House transcript. "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."
The Al Arabiya interview, directed squarely at Muslims around the world, revived a vision of personal, symbolic international change that was in the air when Obama - with his far-flung family members, and complicated story - launched his campaign. It was a vision, and an aspect of his story, that the candidate buried when, in 2007, was forced to combat whispering campaigns about his own faith.
But by giving his first interview to the Arabic network, Obama signaled his continuing belief in his personal power as a symbol of America against the temptations of Islamic militancy. He even dismissed "bankrupt" ideas and policies that don't improve children's health care, jabbing at "nervous" Al Qaeda leaders in language that echoed his campaign against George W. Bush.
The occasion for this interview was the departure of Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, to the Middle East, and a more aggressive and optimistic approach to that conflict than some argued that the circumstances dictated. The president offered no timeline for peace, but a firm view that a Palestinian state remains within reach.
Reuters – U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 26, 2009. …
"What I told him is 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," Obama said. "What we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there's a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs."
Obama's interview was marked by attempts to sympathize with the concerns of ordinary Muslims, particularly on the question of living conditions in the West Bank. But he sought a conciliatory tone throughout the interview, at one point avoiding even restating American policy, and his own platform, than an Iranian nuclear weapon is plainly unacceptable.
"Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?" asked the interviewer, Al Arabiya Washington Bureau Chief Hisham Melhem.
Obama responded only generally, expressing disapproval of an Iranian bomb but not the flat condemnation that is standard from American officials.
"You know, I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran," he said. "Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful."
During the campaign and transition periods, Obama's condemnations of an Iranian nuclear weapon were more direct: "[T]heir development of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable," Obama said on Meet the Press on December 7.
A senior Obama aide said Monday night that Obama had not changed his views on Iran.
Obama also signaled a move away from President Bush's confrontational, generalizing language. Melhem noted to Obama that "President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, 'war on terror,' and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people -- Islamic fascism. You've always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators."
"I think that you're making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters," Obama replied. "[W]hat we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.
"And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda -- that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it -- and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop," he said. "We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down."
Obama's shift Monday was one of tone, not of policy, and he also affirmed America's support for Israel.
"Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount," he said. "But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."
Obama's interview plan was made public only Monday afternoon, and the interview, which concluded just after 6:00 p.m., was distributed to reporters in the evening and embargoed for release at 11:00 p.m.
Asked why Al Arabiya had been granted the president's first interview, and aide said: "We want to communicate directly to the entire world America's new foreign policy."
Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.