The Arab world remains in a tizzy of excitement over the interview given last week by President Obama with the Arabic news service Al-Arabiya. "Overwhelmingly positive" is how the State Department's Web site describes the reaction in the Middle East. Was it anything Mr. Obama said that made them so elated? More likely it was the simple act of speaking to the Arab world through one of its own media and the facts of Mr. Obama's identity and family background. One thing is for sure, Mr. Obama will never be able to live up to the expectations he has now generated unless he has a magic wand hidden in the Oval Office.
Still the interview was an inspired piece of public diplomacy, more so than anything one has been able to glean about the public diplomacy plans of the Obama administration. The Bush administration was repeatedly encouraged (in this space and many others) to put the president on Arab TV, and in fact in 2004 Mr. Bush did just that, though not exactly to the effect Mr. Obama has experienced.
Mr. Obama decided, apparently impromptu, to grant the interview to the Washington correspondent for Al Arabiya, who had been lobbying for an interview with Middle East envoy George Mitchell. The choice of Al Arabiya was probably due to the fact that the Saudi-based network (to which Mr. Bush also spoke) is friendlier territory than Al Jezeera would have been. (Al Jazeera for its part studiously ignored the fact that Mr. Obama had addressed the Arab world).
As recounted on National Public Radio by the interviewer Hisham Melham, he was told Monday morning, the day of the interview, that he would be getting someone rather more exciting than Mr. Mitchell. "Monday morning at 9 o'clock in the morning someone called from the NSC and said ... 'Would you like to see the president of the United States at 5 o'clock this afternoon?' "
The effect was to show the Arab world that in Mr. Obama's first week in office, he took the time to address them specifically and to do so in their own popular media. In one stroke he addressed hundreds of millions of people. But what exactly was his message?
It was mea culpa for the American tendency to "dictate" rather than listen when dealing with international problems. There was a vaguely phrased sense of respect for the Arab way of life (no more offensive talk about democracy and freedom, you know), and a hope to restore relations with the Arab world to the level of 20 or 30 years ago (that would be during the oil crisis of the late 1970s actually, not exactly where we would want to be, one would have thought).
Mr. Obama promised that Israelis and Palestinians would be encouraged to find mutual understanding, with U.S. support (that's exactly the Bush policy). Then he promised that Special Envoy George Mitchell would go and listen to the litany of Israeli and Palestinian problems. Now the act of listening in itself shows respect, which makes it a good idea, but as Mr. Mitchell would learn if he talked to former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, he is likely to get an almighty earful and a level five Aspirin headache.
And yet, as feather-light as the content was, CNN hailed the interview as "the message the Muslim world was waiting for."
How does this news event bode for the state of public diplomacy in the Obama administration? It tells you obviously that the new president is keenly aware of the importance of addressing foreign audiences himself.
In terms of the public diplomacy institutions of the U.S. government, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in charge of, it appears some of the mistakes of the Bush years could be repeated. In her confirmation hearings as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton had little to say on the subject, devoting only a few paragraphs to public diplomacy in her written testimony. Furthermore, in the reported choice of Judith McHale as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, the Obama administration has chosen someone from the rank of its major donors with Hollywood background, but with no diplomatic experience. Sending out the president to talk will be a powerful public diplomacy strategy for the new administration, but much more will be needed in the long run.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times