Obama tells Arabic network U.S. is ‘not your enemy’
PAUL SCHEMM | 1/28/2009, 7:58 a.m.
CAIRO, Egypt — President Barack Obama chose an Arabic satellite TV network for his first formal television interview as president, part of a concerted effort to repair relations with the Muslim world that were damaged under the previous administration.
Obama cited his Muslim background and relatives, practically a taboo issue during the U.S. presidential campaign, and said in the interview, which aired Tuesday, that one of his main tasks was to communicate to Muslims “that the Americans are not your enemy.”
The interview on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel aired as Obama’s new envoy to the region, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, arrived in Egypt on Tuesday for a visit that will also take him to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Obama said the U.S. had made mistakes in the past but “that 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.”
Obama also emphasized the importance of engaging with Iran, a country the Bush administration often singled out as the most dangerous in the region.
Obama condemned Iran’s threats against Israel, pursuit of nuclear weapons and support of terrorist organizations, but said “it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.”
Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush, launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which prompted a massive backlash against the U.S. in the Muslim world.
In contrast to the enthusiastic reception Obama’s victory has garnered around the world, the Arab world has been much more cautious about the new U.S. president — with most people skeptical that American policy in the region will change substantially.
“I can’t be optimistic until I see something tangible,” said Hatem al-Kurdi, 35, a Gaza City engineer who saw parts of the interview. “Anyone can say nice words, but you have to follow with actions.”
“He seems very interested in the Middle East issue, but he didn’t say exactly what he’s going to do about it,” Kurdi added.
After earlier dismissing Obama as following the same policies as his predecessor, officials from the militant Palestinian Hamas group softened their stance against the new president Tuesday.
“In the last couple of days there have been a lot of statements [from Obama], some of them very positive, and choosing this George Mitchell as an envoy,” said Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas official interviewed on the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news network. “I think there are some positive things we have to count.”
However, Obama’s choice of Al-Arabiya, a network owned by a Saudi businessman, follows the lead of the Bush administration, which gave several presidential interviews to that news channel.
“The U.S. sees Al-Arabiya as a friendly Arab channel, whereas they see Al-Jazeera as confrontational,” said Lawrence Pintak, director of the journalism training center at the American University in Cairo.
Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, an arm of the U.S. think-tank in the Qatari capital, described the decision to make the first presidential interview with an Arabic news network as “stunning.”