Re: Talking to the Muslim World
Posted by Shadi Hamid
Commenting on Obama's Al-Arabiya interview, Heather writes that "a speech should follow some substantive initiatives, not precede them." I'm of the "show-not-tell" public diplomacy school of thought too, but I also think rhetoric is quite important in the Arab and Muslim world independent of what follows it.
A major criticism of Bush's Mideast policy is that he raised expectations needlessly high with needlessly soaring rhetoric. I tend to differ. Raising expectations is important because it forces us to at least consider the prospect of meeting them. In other words, rhetoric binds us. Rhetoric increases the cost of inaction, because it threatens to widen the gulf between words and deeds. The larger such a gulf, the more our credibility suffers. Raising the costs of inaction is obviously a good thing, because it propels us toward action. In the case of the Bush administration, this did not happen, but it could have, and it should have. And President Bush - and our country at-large - suffered greatly for choosing not to act upon his words.
Rhetoric is important because it is critical to story-telling. Let me explain. As I've argued before, narratives matter. What is the story we wish to tell to those who distrust us, and to those who wish to believe in us but can't? Obama has begun telling a new story. The facts may or may not be the same, but, either way, they are interpreted in the context of what might be called an "interpretive narrative."
Lastly, I'd like to respond to something Daniel Larison said, that
One of the advantages that Obama has in speaking to an Arabic-language network so early in his term is that the novelty of doing it and the priority he gave it are just remarkable enough that he need not say anything significant.
The bar has been set so low that the interview couldn't have not been a success, regardless of anything Obama actually said. This is one of the Bush's mixed legacies. He lowered expectations to the extent that we find ourselves easily pleased. It is good to feel good, but this is probably not a good thing for policy. On the other hand, because the Bush administration's Mideast policy was so, um, bad, it underlines the urgent need for a different approach. If Bush's policies had been middling and unremarkable, and continued within the basic contours of past U.S. engagement, then there would have been less pressure on his successor to offer a clean break with the past. A clean break with the past was what we needed, and we can thank President Bush for demonstrating this need in rather stark terms.