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Obama Addresses Arab World in First Post-Inaugural Interview

January 27, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In his first extensive post-inaugural interview, President Obama assured Muslims that America was not an enemy. Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, discusses the Middle East's reaction to the Al-Arabiya interview and Obama's challenges ahead in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama’s first post-inaugural interview aired late last night, but odds are most Americans didn’t see it. The interview was with journalist Hisham Melhem on Al-Arabiya, a leading worldwide Arab satellite channel based in Dubai.

They spoke just hours after Mr. Obama dispatched his new special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, former Sen. George Mitchell, on his first mission to the region.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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’ve 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 of the factors that are involved. So let’s listen.

I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria, or Iran, or Lebanon, or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated.

U.S. support for Israel

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama praised a 2002 Arab peace plan advanced by the Saudis, but he also said U.S. support for Israel remains steadfast.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. It will not stop being a strong ally to the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount.

But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices, if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.

MARGARET WARNER: The president was asked how he would address the explosion of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, which is exploited by al-Qaida and other extremists.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be language of respect.

You know, I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.

Obama's message of 'change'

MARGARET WARNER: We caught up with Hisham Melhem, a familiar face to NewsHour viewers, today.

What message was President Obama trying to send to the Arab and Muslim world in this interview he did with you?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington bureau chief, Al-Arabiya: Simply, change. I'm going to be speaking a different language. You will see a different tone. There's a new wind blowing from Washington. And we're going to treat you with respect.

And he spoke in a clear, determined voice. And I think he was trying to assure the people in the Arab world and the Muslim world that there would be a new page, if they are willing, also, to meet him halfway.

That is really the message. It was in the tone. It was in the content. And I think he was trying to undermine those who are trying to demonize the United States and demonize him personally. And I think he succeeded when he spoke in a humane voice, telling them, "Members of my family are also -- belong to the Muslim faith." And I think he will disarm a lot of people.

Reception among Arab viewers

MARGARET WARNER: So you think that tone was more important than any specific issue, what he had to say, say, on the Israeli-Palestinian front?

HISHAM MELHEM: On the Israeli-Palestinian side, he was essentially saying, "I'm going to be engaging in it. I'm not going to leave it until the end. And I'm going to be involved personally."

In terms of content, he didn't say much, but he -- again, he spoke about the humanity of both sides, the pain of the Palestinian child, the need for that Palestinian child for dignity and a place under the sun, and the need of the Israeli child for a sense of security. So there was this kind of mutual recognition.

MARGARET WARNER: And how has it been received so far among your viewers?

HISHAM MELHEM: Even through translation, from English to Arabic, the average viewers felt that there was an authenticity in his voice, that there was a different tone. There was a yearning for a new page, and whether he was talking about the war on terror -- he doesn't call it a war on terror, he talks about al-Qaida -- whether he's talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

U.S. resolve to fight terrorism

MARGARET WARNER: In the interview, the president did emphasize that his openness does not signal any weakening of America's resolve to combat terrorism and extremism.

BARACK OBAMA: You will, I think, see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al-Qaida that espouse violence, espouse terror, and act on it, and people who may disagree with my administration in certain actions or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop.

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. But to the broader Muslim world, what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.

But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words, but by my actions and my administration's actions.

MARGARET WARNER: The president has been taking actions long urged by Arab allies. In his first week in office, he set a deadline to close the prison at Guantanamo and met with his military advisers to discuss U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

And his first call to a foreign leader went to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.