On the road to overcoming

President Obama granted the Al-Arabiya Network his first formal broadcast interview since taking office. According to Ben Smith’s report, Obama addressed the subject of Iran’s nuclear program:

“Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?” asked the interviewer, Al Arabiya Washington Bureau Chief Hisham Melhem.

Obama responded only generally, expressing disapproval of an Iranian bomb but not the flat condemnation that is standard from American officials.

“You know, I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran,” he said. “Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that’s not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past — none of these things have been helpful.”

Their support of terrorist organizations in the past? How about their support of terrorist organizations today? On the positive side, he did say “it hasn’t been helpful.”

Obama also referred to “the past” in equating Islamic terrorism with other, unspecified religiously motivated violence:

Melhem noted to Obama that “President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, ‘war on terror,’ and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people — Islamic fascism. You’ve always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators.”

“I think that you’re making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters,” Obama replied. “[W]hat we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations — whether Muslim or any other faith in the past — that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name.

“And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda — that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it — and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop,” he said. “We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down.”

Perhaps one day Obama will recognize the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. if so, I’m afraid it may be when Obama proclaims we have overcome our inordinate fear of Islamic terrorism.

JOHN adds: Here is an excerpt from the interview, which does not include the portions quoted above but displays the same tone:

It’s puzzling: Obama says he wants to restore “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.” So he’s talking about the Reagan administration? Or is that supposed to be a reference to Jimmy Carter? Let’s hope not; perhaps it is just another instance of Obama shooting carelessly from the hip, without understanding how much a President’s words can matter.

Here as elsewhere, Obama is happy to convey the impression that he intends to break sharply with Bush administration policies. He implies that the Bush administration condemned all Muslims, didn’t respect Islam and didn’t “listen” to Muslims. But of course that isn’t true; for Bush, Islam was always the “religion of peace.” This scoring of cheap political points may work during a campaign, but it doesn’t constitute a foreign policy.

UPDATE: The Week rounds up a few comments on Obama’s interview including our own. The Anchoress rounds up a few more and adds some worthy observations.

To comment on this post, go here.

Responses