President Barack Obama sat down with Al-Arabiya television today in his “first formal interview as the American president,” [see clip above for full interview]. The Associated Press called the segment “part of a concerted effort to repair relations with the Muslim world that were damaged under the previous administration.” The news agency added in its coverage, “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.’” CNN aired a clip of Obama asserting, “We can have disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians, and we will hunt them down. But to the broader Muslim world, what we are going to offer is a hand of friendship.” The newly inaugurated president added, “My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people that simply want to live their lives…my job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy.”
CNN’s Rick Sanchez spoke with Professor Fawaz Gerges [of Sarah Lawrence College and author of several books including, Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy], who commented on Obama’s statements today. When asked, “If this was a public relations war, is Al Qaeda winning,” Gerges replied, “I don’t think AQ is winning the war at all. In fact, I have argued all along that [they] lost the war of ideas in the last two years, and what Obama is trying to do is hammer a deadly nail in the coffin of AQ.” The professor called this approach “a very promising beginning,” adding that the policy will ultimately “make the U.S. safer” and go a long way to repair the bridges [of trust] between U.S. and Muslim world. [For a related & interesting article on the growing irrelevance of Al Qaeda, read this piece by The Economist.]
The interview today was significant because of how Obama framed “the enemy.” There was a marked shift from past Bush administration policy, which often polarized good and bad, using abstract phrases like “The Axis of Evil,” the “War on Terror,” and “you’re either with us or against us.” President Obama acknowledged the “gray area” in today’s televised segment, drawing the distinction between terrorist organizations and the people of the “Muslim World” who, as he asserted, do extraordinary things and want extraordinary things for their children. His rhetoric demonstrated an understanding of the complexities that exist in the international community today, a far cry from the policy over the last eight years.
Putting rhetoric into practice may prove difficult though, particularly in regard to Pakistan, and the continued air strikes in our tribal areas, [see recent post on recent drone attacks]. Today, Dawn reported that Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the United States “will continue to carry out missile strikes against Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan.” The news agency noted in its coverage, “‘Both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after Al Qaeda wherever Al Qaeda is and we will continue to pursue that,’ Gates said. Asked by committee chairman Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, if that decision had been conveyed to the Pakistani government, Gates replied: ‘Yes, sir.’”
Hmmm. Is it ever justifiable for the U.S. to hit targets if it means coming on to Pakistani soil? What if the only casualties are Al Qaeda or Taliban-linked militants? Will it impact the Obama administration’s new olive branch to the Muslim World? I pose these questions not only because I’m conflicted over the answers, but because I think it’s an interesting opening for discussion.