President Barack Obama gave his first interview since he’s taken office to Al-Arabiya, a Saudi news network on Jan. 26. There is no doubt that the move was both impressive and constructive. The old face of imperialism, which characterized the Bush administration, has left some hope for change in our relations with the Arab world. President Obama has kept some notable promises since he has taken oath, namely closing down the infamous Guantanamo Bay and meeting with the war cabinet to discuss the withdrawal of troops in Iraq by May 2010. He has made it clear that he’ll hold the age-old mantra of “Peace in the Middle East” to his name.
There are certainly many factors at play against Obama, including some decisions that he has already made. On Jan. 23, Obama ordered an Air Force drone to bomb two separate Pakistani villages, which Pakistani officials said killed 22 individuals, including between four and seven foreign fighters. He has also issued orders to escalate the number of troops in Afghanistan, despite the economic recession continuing to take a heavy toll on Americans. And the military leaders he met with to discuss the future of Iraq and Afghanistan are mostly the same military leaders under Bush.
In the interview, the president discussed how his personal envoy to the Middle East, headed by former Sen. George Mitchell, will be “speaking to all the major parties involved” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Mitchell will make a stop in the West Bank, he will not venture into Gaza or meet with Hamas officials, according to a state department spokesman. Wasn’t Hamas the reason Israel launched a 22-day offensive on the small strip? Will this trip to the Middle East be effective or are we going to see more of the same?
President Obama has knowingly inherited many problems. However, his rhetoric is new, positive and refreshing. He wants to communicate in a language of respect and diplomacy, leaving many across the globe hopeful. However, if the new administration is willing to change anything, it must first confront history and America’s contribution to much of the destabilization and social and economic poverty that the Arab countries face. In a segment of the interview, Obama told interviewer Hisham Melham that “America was not born as a colonial power, and that [in considering] the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.”
Through manifest destiny to the Louisiana Purchase to the Mexican-American War, America was born out of colonialist and expansionist ideals. The level of partnership and respect the U.S. has within the Arab world has been historically documented and is presently based on supporting dictatorships that serve our economic interests. For this reason, the U.S. government cannot attempt to continue forging peace deals based off of old school foreign policy tactics and simultaneously expect peace within and from these countries. If we wish, as President Obama said, “to seek a new way forward with the Muslim world based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” then we must also be willing to stop supporting irresponsible governments that fail to improve the social and economic conditions of their own people.
Obama has recognized and pointed out many of the faults of the past eight years. Although his rhetoric is determined and diplomatic, he said, “People are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration’s actions … I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I’m speaking to them, as well.”
His speeches are idealistic and saturated with progressive messages, but what is the meaning of grandiose affirmations without action? What is the meaning of peace if it lacks justice? And what is hope if it is void of respect for the people living in America and abroad?
Yasmin Nouh is a third-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.