Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One Must Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn

Yesterday Barack Obama gave his first full sit down interview . . . to Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya, the satellite channel out of Dubai! Those of you who watch the news on PBS have seen Hisham Melhem often, as a Middle Eastern voice on the Israel-Palestine situation, on the Iraq war and on Iran, as well as other news concerning the region. I saw parts of the interview on AC360 on CNN, with comments from David Gergen and Reza Aslan, author of No God but God. The full transcript of the interview is available on the Al-Arabiya website.

Besides the overall tone of the interview, there are a few startlingly clear, direct statements that completely change the tone of the US relationship with the Middle East region. First:
"Well, I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away. And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals.

And so what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues --and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen. "
That is excellent advice about listening, applicable to congressmen and senators as well as to the media and commentariat, who sometimes seem to spend all of their time yelling at each other, and to the public. Second:
"Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people."
This statement changes the playing field entirely. The goal has been reset. Once the goal becomes "prosperity and security for their people," then the intermediate steps become better defined. It is not just to stop the next missile strike, tunnel smuggling or border incident. It is building something long term for their people. Once you think in those terms the violence is intolerable and immediate steps and planning for the long term must commence. Otherwise it will never arrive.

But I was struck by a comment by David Gergen who said Obama was a man of staggering ambition who obviously wanted to change the world. Duh. I guess he wasn't listening either. The entire purpose of the campaign for the presidency was in order to change the way the world operates. Had he been listening through the entire campaign he would have known this. Gergen later stated that it was remarkable that Obama had undertaken these steps so quickly. Reza Aslan described himself as giddy about the interview, especially about the use of the word, respect, many times during the interview. Aslan felt that the President was trying to set himself up as a bridge between the cultures.

Let us hope that this is a beginning. We'll see where it goes.

Update: Andrew Sullivan has an excellent post on his response to President Obama's interview.

Al-Arabiya Interview Part 1:

Al-Arabiya Interview Part 2:

Al-Arabiya Interview on AC360:

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