Friday, January 30, 2009

Why Al Arabiya? Not just publics, but experts and diplomats too

There's no question that President Obama's decision to hold his first big interview with Al Arabiya is of huge symbolic value. Jim Lobe emphasized in Hong Kong's Asia Times that Middle East specialists in Washington have taken to the message especially strongly, after years of feeling ignored about major foreign policy issues, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The extreme sensitivity in the Arab world over this issue in the wake of the Gaza conflict adds another layer to the question of why Obama chose Al Arabiya.

On this digest of blog posts from the Arab World, there is a lot of debate and mixed reaction to the interview. Everyone certainly agrees that the interview represents a step forward, but some are asking why, if the President was looking to make a real impression, he didn't go on al-Jazeera. Professor Hayden discusses al-Hurra's major credibility problems below, but according to the blog excerpts at the link above,

"Al-Arabiya is viewed by alot of people in the Middle East as a propaganda outlet for the conservative pro-American regimes."

"this is the channel dubbed Hibriya (The Hebrew One) because of its coverage of the Gaza crisis and that generally defends the views of Riyadh, Cairo and other problematic US allies."

Now obviously Obama can't make everyone happy, and Al Arabiya seems to me to be a great balanced choice to show he's serious about dialogue and righting wrongs, but he's not going to get into a shouting match with one of the notoriously independent (and correspondingly more credible) Al Jazeera anchors.

However, Obama's message decision to go on Al Arabiya may have been targeted more specifically than just being on Arab TV. Al Arabiya is a Saudi station (why the bloggers were skeptical), and the Saudi's have been especially incensed about the Gaza situation. Riyadh has been conducting a peace process with the rest of the Arab world for quite some time, and has been remarkably successful in pulling together the support of the rarely united Arab governments about the circumstances under which they will recognize and support Israel. The only problem is that they received no support from the Bush administration, to the extant that former Ambassador to the U.S. Turki al-Faisal wrote an angry article in the Financial Times blaming Bush's complacency for the Gaza attack and warning Obama that he has to move quickly and decisively if he wants to salvage any kind of progress.

Col. Pat Lang, former Pentagon advisor quoted in that Asia Times article up there, suggests that the Al Arabiya decision may have been as much about building bridges with Saudi Arabia specifically, public as well as government, as about general Muslim outreach. The strategy would be two fold: not only does Obama get a great piece of exposure in the Muslim world, showing he's sincere and wants to fix things (except maybe to the people that call the channel al-Hibriya), he also shows the Saudis, by picking their station, that he's serious about working with them on Israel-Palestine, and that he won't torpedo their efforts to contribute to a real peace process, which, unlike Annapolis, actually showed some support in the Arab world. That part is regular state-to-state diplomacy I guess, but its done in through public means, kind of sideways diplomacy I guess.

Also, to remind us what's at stake and how important PD really is, as Obama gives his first Presidential interview, Bush's first (though unofficial) presidential monument is being dismantled already . . .

1 comment:

  1. I'm just curious to know if you think that al-Jazeera is better because it rotates it's managing offices to follow the sun from Doha to London to Washington, D.C. to Kuala Lumpur and back than al-Arabiya, which was touted as the network with the largest distribution. I would think that this was the clear statement that Obama was making and is only a misstep if he was somehow misinformed and that al-Arabiya does not have the widest distribution.

    On another note, I highly doubt that Obama would get into a shouting match with an anchor from al-Jazeera because, even in the hottest spots on the campaign trail here, he was admired and noted for being so calm and cool in debates. Conversely, I think al-Jazeera may have been passed up as an option because they are not universally seen as independent and credible so much as they can also be seen as having their own slant in direct opposition to the U.S. As such, Obama would have likely received the same comments about "we like what we're hearing, we'll like it even more when we see action" from Muslim opinion polls and reactions, but he would have had to answer to significant questioning of appearing on al-Jazeera domestically.

    Lastly, on your comments about the implications for influencing Saudi Arabia in his choice, I think that you are right in pointing out a key role of public diplomacy. From my perspective, selecting a Saudi television station and making the statements that he did allows these governments to take his action to the next levels necessary to get popular support behind initiatives in the region. In other words, Obama's interview can be a beginning or venue for a transition in the public sphere that allows governments in the region to maneuver domestically in ways that were previously unavailable during the last administration. This is all up in the air at the moment, but the focus on publics for public diplomacy always carries indirect implications for the politicians, diplomats, and civil society elements of a country in its very nature.

    I wouldn't go so far as you on the symbol to the Saudis just yet because his interview does cite his inaugural address and there are points in that address that give countries like Saudi Arabia things to think about. Namely, the Bush administration received a lot of criticism for trying to advance democracy, but also for turning a blind eye to the abuses of undemocratic governments, such as Saudi Arabia, in forming particular strategic alliances. Obama has alluded to changing the dynamics of these relationships. In this sense, he is using public diplomacy to put himself in a position that may lead to demands for change from the Saudi government if you follow your line of thought on the symbolism at play here.