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January 27, 2009

Talking to the Muslim World
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Remember 5-6 years ago when you couldn't find an American official willing to appear on Arab tv of any kind?  Back then, if I remember rightly, you could find lots of conservatives as well as progressives who thought that talking to the Islamic world was a good idea.  Now, though, when President Obama goes on Al Arabiya tv, and talks about giving a speech to reopen dialogue with the Islamic world, different story.  David Frum and I have a video debate about this here, where I take the "show don't tell" position and argue that a speech should follow some substantive initiatives, not precede them; David argues that making a speech to the "Muslim world" will inevitably lead us to disregard the diversity and difference within the Islamic world and empower extremists rather than liberals and moderates.  In a wonkier vein, Michelle Dunne, Hisham Melhem, Scott Carpenter and I opined on when, how and what such a speech could accomplish over at Carnegie recently. Our collective bottom line:  clarity, honesty, modesty.  My problem:  that doesn't make a great speech.


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Remember 5-6 years ago when you couldn't find an American official willing to appear on Arab tv of any kind?

Baloney. George W. Bush participated in several interviews on Al Arabiya dating back to at least 2004. Here's a portion of one.

Well, part of the plan is for people to see a better life. And the other part of the plan is for there to be a clearly defined state so it's no longer just a two-state solution; it's "here's what the borders will look like, here's how we're going to deal with the refugees, here's how we're going to deal with the different, complicated issues," so people could actually see and analyze, do I want this, or do I want what's happening in Gaza, for example? And given that choice, I'm confident, having met a lot of Palestinians and know the Palestinians fairly well, about how people just want peace. They want their children to grow up in peace and they want to be able to make a living.

Interview of President Bush by Al Arabiya TV

Apparently, one very prominent member of the Obama administration may not be 100% behind the new talking and engagement craze. The re-appointment of Gates was puzzling on many levels, the most puzzling of all being Obama's conclusion that he was elected to bring "continuity" to national defense policy.

Thanks a lot to Brian Katulis and Nancy Soderberg. They are the Democratic Foreign Policy viziers who really got the ball rolling on the Keep Gates movement. Gates, feeling the blowing winds of political change, made few nice speeches garnished with Democratic themes about failed state nation-building and economic support, and that was enough to wow them.

Of course, the "prosperity agenda" trumpeted by Katulis and Soderberg is now a moot point anyway. Obama's domestic and global economic policy for the next few years has evolved, quite rationally, into a "prevent utter collapse" agenda. Propping up failing states with economic aid? The states Obama is going to have to worry about are in Eastern Europe, where they are already seeing major anti-government protests. Some of them may decide to go back to Communism once the ravages of the current debacle set in fully.

By the time the ship is righted, and the administration has the cash to invest significant funds in failed state makeovers, Gates will probably be long gone. But not before he has time to scuttle the opening to Iran.

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