It popped up on television last night and I had two reactions. The first was a sense of met expectation. Part of the rationale for Obama's presidency from a foreign policy perspective was always his unique capacity to rebrand America in the eyes of the Muslim world. Since even the hardest core neocons agree that wooing the Muslim center is critical to winning the long war against Jihadism, Obama's outreach is unremarkable and should be utterly uncontroversial. Bush tried for a while to do the same. But Karen Hughes is not exactly Barack Obama. And the simple gesture of choosing an Arab media outlet for his first televised interview as president is extremely powerful. It has the elegance of a minimalist move with maximalist aims. It is about the same thing as inviting Rick Warren or supping with George Will: it's about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
This respect came with the following astonishing words:
Now, 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 a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries ... the largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.
And 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.
What Obama is doing is appealing over the heads of Muslim leaders directly to Muslim populations. I cannot think of any other president with the same kind of personal credibility in such a critical time. And his appeal is to relieve the state of humankind:
[T]he bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves? And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? And if we can keep our focus on making their lives better and look forward, and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past, then I think that we have an opportunity to make real progress.
Onto the choppy waters of religious strife, the old oil of material improvement. It's a way in; a way to change the subject; a subtle appeal to Muslim and Arab peoples on common ground.
And, of course, it begs the question. Is he serious? Is this a huge hinge of history - or just a rebranding of an old policy with the old interests at play? And the truth is: we cannot know. The odds are against him. Israel seems to be entering a period of a defensive crouch so intense it will spurn all efforts to save it; the Arab regimes are as potentially threatened by Obama's opening as anyone; Hamas and Iran and Hezbollah and al Qaeda are temporarily flummoxed but will be eager to foil any grand bargain.
My sense, for what it's worth, is that Obama is genuine. He doesn't know whether this bold new play will pay dividends any more than we do. What he does know, I think, is that we have no choice. The trajectory of the current global conflict, centered on the question of Islam and modernity, is an apocalyptic one if the game isn't changed soon. He is attempting to change the game. Which led me to my second reaction.