President Barack Obama is not going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, crush the Taliban, end Iran's nuclear intransigence, get Syria to stop interfering in Lebanon or end the fighting in Iraq overnight - or next week, or possibly ever. Yet his interview Tuesday with the Al-Arabiya satellite channel laid a foundation for better U.S. relations with the Arab world than we've had in many years.
Obama's savvy diplomacy started before he even opened his mouth, with his selection of Al-Arabiya to air the first official television interview he has granted since taking office. Not only did this signal a new level of involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, but it gave a boost to a Saudi-owned news channel founded in 2003 to present a more balanced view of regional conflicts than was being produced by the more Islamist-leaning Al-Jazeera network. The latter has since become more objective in its coverage, possibly because it was losing viewers to Al-Arabiya. Now it has even more incentive to play fair: the chance of landing the next Obama exclusive.
Obama offered few clues about specific changes in policy, but the interview presented a striking change in tone from the belligerence and neglect of the Bush administration to respectfulness and engagement. "The United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world," he said. "The language we use has to be a language of respect." He reassured Muslim viewers that the United States was not their enemy, acknowledged that this country had made mistakes in the region by "dictating" rather than listening, and reiterated his commitment to negotiating with Iran.
The Arab reaction seemed widely positive, although Obama doubtless will be judged more by his actions than his words. He already has made progress on that front, too, sending his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, on an eight-day tour of the region that started Tuesday in Egypt. Unlike President George W. Bush, who waited until late in his second term to make a concerted push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama has directed his attention to the conflict within a week of taking office.
Obama's efforts to negotiate with hostile regimes are sure to rile many in this country, and not just the wingnut crowd that thinks the president's middle name proves he's a secret Muslim. They fail to see that diplomacy is not the same as surrender, that disputes are unlikely to end if opponents don't talk to one another, and that sanctions alone have been ineffective in changing the behavior of leaders in Iran and Gaza. A new approach couldn't be more welcome.