What May be a Big Deal or Nothing Much

Yep, you need a winnowing fan – like in Luke 3:17 – to blow the chaff off the grain. You need to separate the wheat from chaff, to get rid of the useless for the useful. And the winnowing fan is a useful symbol – Homer also used it, and Tennyson. It’s shorthand for seeing what matters – you blow away what’s irrelevant, the stuff that’s only useful for bedding and mulch. What’s left is what matters – the grain – and you can make bread and not starve.

 

In terms of figuring out what’s going on in the world, you watch the news – or read or listen – and feel the same need. So much seems filler and spin – it’s mostly chaff – and it’s hard to figure out what is really going on. You listen to experts explain things and begin to understand what is meant by the term straw-man argument – you’re being offered the chaff, the straw, not the kernels of truth that might actually be useful.

 

And it does matter – no one wants endless war, or the war to end all wars (and everything else), or the collapse of the world economy. No, that’s not right – all three options have their enthusiastic fans, even if those folks are a bit wacky. But, in general, most people want the key information, in order to know what might happen next, and why, and what can be done to assure some sort of halfway decent outcome. There’s a lot of chaff and people want a winnowing fan. Some turn to Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann with their blasts of hot air, both saying they blow away the chaff. You may believe they do, or not. Some turn to dry scholarly experts in Foreign Policy or various economic journals, others to a newspapers or magazines they trust, and others to the web – conservatives to Townhall.com and liberals to Daily Kos. You pretty much decide who you trust and decide that’s your winnowing fan. Yes, you’re kidding yourself.

 

Of course you can try to do the work yourself, but that can drive you mad, and no one has the time or the research skills to give that a go. Or you could look at all those who, when separating the crap from what matters, contradict and insult each other, and hope by thinking about what you see from all sides you can figure out where the truth might lie. That can drive you to drink – everyone says they’re right and the other guy is wrong, and you end up tired and confused.

 

So, are things going well in the world, with our new president? Will the Middle East blow up? Obama did dispatch George Mitchell to the region, his newly named special envoy to the Middle East – just four days into the presidency. That was cool, as Mitchell was the one who finely brokered truce in Northern Ireland. This is a good sign, even if the head of the Anti-Defamation League thinks this is awful:

 

Some Jewish leaders say the very qualities that may appeal to the Obama administration – Mitchell’s reputation as an honest broker – could spark unhappiness, if not outright opposition, from some pro-Israel groups.

 

“Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ – it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support.”

 

“So I’m concerned,” Foxman continued. “I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.”

 

Okay then – being fair and meticulously even-handed in the Middle East is dangerous, almost a betrayal. Who knew? That’ll take some thinking. O’Reilly is probably with Foxman, and Olbermann not. Perhaps the whole concept of being even-handed is both unpatriotic and anti-Semitic, given the way the world is now. Or maybe that’s all chaff, and nothing will get better until we become more even-handed. But sometimes you just have to pick sides, and take a stand. But sometimes you have to understand the other guy’s point of view, and work out a way everyone can get along, however grudgingly, or we’ll all die. But sometimes death is preferable to dishonor. And sometimes you need a drink.

 

And of course, the Mitchell trip coincided with the president’s first post-inaugural media interview, and that was held with al-Arabiya, the “Dubai-based satellite network that is one of the largest English-language TV outlets aimed at Arab audiences.” Obama’s emphasis seems to be on improving our standing in the Middle East – beginning a withdrawal policy in Iraq, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo – and this seemed to be part of the effort:

 

In one of his first interviews since taking office, President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that “the Americans are not your enemy” and adding that “the moment is ripe for both sides” to negotiate in the Middle East.

 

His remarks, recorded in Washington on Monday night, signaled a shift – in style and manner at least – from the Bush administration, offering a dialogue with Iran and what he depicted as a new readiness to listen rather than dictate. …

 

Mr. Obama said he believed “the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away” and that he had told his envoy to “start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.”

 

“Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions,” Mr. Obama said. “But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that, instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.”

 

Well, that’s odd – Mitchell was told to go listen, not knock heads. After eight years of O’Reilly and Fox News, the nation’s favorite winnowing fans, saying it was time to make these people shape up, we have the guy we elected to run things say no, let’s see what these people think, and listen to their issues. This is a change.

 

You can watch the nine-minute interview here and the full transcript is here, but the whole thing was pretty straightforward:

 

We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.

 

The president also drew a distinction between “extremist organizations” committed to violence 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.” And he added that his personal background – “I have Muslim members of my family; I have lived in Muslim countries” – helps shape his perspective on the region. And he followed up on recent reporting– al-Qaeda’s rhetoric seems a bit panicked, and said he thought the terrorist leaders there “seem nervous” – they have no idea what to do with no Bush to mock (and it can be argued that is quite true)

 

But was this a big deal? Andrew Sullivan thinks so:

 

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.

 

Sullivan quotes this:

 

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.

 

Sullivan says that what Obama is doing is “appealing over the heads of Muslim leaders directly to Muslim populations.” It may be that the idea is that Obama is doing something Bush could never do regarding al-Qaeda – he’s satin to everyone in the region, okay, look at those guys, and look at me and my country, and decide who’d you’d rather hang with. That’s a hard sell after all these years, and all the dead people, but this one guy, at this time, has an opportunity he just cannot pass up. He’s using his middle name, and the fact we all voted him into office, as a wedge. You cannot pass up this one unique chance.

 

And the president laid it on thick:

 

The 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.

 

This will drive al-Qaeda crazy, and Sullivan adds this:

 

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.

 

And of all things, he alone seems to think it’s still possible that have a two-state solution in the Middle East:

 

Q: There are many Palestinians and Israelis who are very frustrated now with the current conditions and they are losing hope, they are disillusioned, and they believe that time is running out on the two-state solution because – mainly because of the settlement activities in Palestinian-occupied territories. Will it still be possible to see a Palestinian state – and you know the contours of it – within the first Obama administration?

 

THE PRESIDENT: I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state – I’m not going to put a time frame on it – that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.

 

Kevin Drum is curious about that:

 

Contiguous? Including Gaza? That’s pretty ambitious. But the interview was a short one and interviewer Hisham Melhem didn’t press the issue. Overall, Obama kept things mainly at the level of symbolism (“I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”) – and scored some integrity points for supporting Israel in front of an Arab audience (“Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States.”). He didn’t otherwise say much of substance, but he did confirm that he’d be making a major speech from a Muslim capital sometime in the next few months. I vote for Tehran, just for the sheer spectacle of the thing.

 

That’s mild approval of a semi-big thing, which may make no difference. In Foreign Policy, Mark Lynch is wildly happy with this major event:

 

It’s impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Barack Obama choosing an Arabic satellite television station for his first formal interview as President – and of taking that opportunity to talk frankly about a new relationship with the Muslim world based on mutual respect and emphasizing listening rather than dictating. His interview promises a genuinely fresh start in the way the United States interacts with the Arab world and a new dedication to public diplomacy.

 

His remarks hit the sweet spot again and again. He repeatedly emphasized his intention of moving past the iron walls of the ‘war on terror’ and ‘clash of civilizations’ which so dominated the Bush era.

 

And Lynch loves the realism:

 

He clearly understands that this won’t be easy, that there are real conflicts and obstacles and enemies. He obviously recognizes that the Gaza crisis and eight years of the Bush administration have left a heavy toll on America’s reputation and credibility. He stressed the importance of engaging on Israeli-Arab issues right away, the need for new ideas and approaches, and the interrelationships among the region’s issues that I’ve always seen as the key to his Middle East policy (“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.”)

 

And above all, he understands that words are only the beginning, and that ultimately deeds and policy will determine Arab views of the United States. Public diplomacy is not about marketing a lousy policy – it’s about engaging honestly, publicly, and directly with foreign publics about those policies, explaining and listening and adjusting where appropriate. Obama gets it…

 

Lynch does of course concede that Arabs are both impressed and skeptical, and quotes oneprominent Jordanian blogger:

 

I agree that, generally, Americans are not the enemy of the Muslim world. However, I’m just not sure how to classify those Americans who have big guns, big tanks and big jets that occupy a neighboring country and have a habit of killing a lot of its people. Or, at least, the Americans who sell those big guns, big tanks and big jets to other people that occupy another neighboring country and have a habit of killing a lot of its people.

 

Well, there’s work to do, but it’s a start.

 

Or it isn’t, if you turn to an alternative winnowing fan, like Daniel Larison here:

 

At most it means that President Obama was serious when he made irenic remarks in his Inaugural directed to Muslims, but I suspect this has zero significance when it comes to policy. Like the appointment of George Mitchell, which represents an exception to the general rule of administration personnel on regional policy, giving an interview to Al-Arabiya is a conciliatory gesture designed to try to make up for the reality of U.S. policy. It is the sort of conciliatory move that Obama believes he can make because he is confident in his own “pro-Israel” bona fides, as well he might be considering the make-up of his Cabinet, staff and Middle East policy team, just as Obama’s general acceptance of national security ideology gives him the flexibility and the political cover to critique and oppose individual policy decisions.

 

This Al-Arabiya interview is most likely a case of attempting to “re-package” or “re-brand” the same policy in a more attractive way, which assumes that Arab and other foreign publics are not reacting negatively to the substance of U.S. policy but only to its presentation. More basically, critics of this interview must not understand Obama at all. Obama likes negotiation and consensus-building, and he likes to try to explain one group’s situation to another. This is the peril of his bridge-building instinct that I mentioned long ago: the attempt to convey a message from one side to another is routinely mistaken as a concession to the other side. This is why some other conservatives (usually those who ended up voting for him) made a very different kind of mistake in assuming that Obama sympathized with certain conservative policy proposals that he did not dismiss out of hand.

 

In short, Obama likes negotiation and consensus-building – but he doesn’t make concessions, and this is no concession by America, nor is it a betrayal of Israel. Obama has dealt with Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian fellow who held a fundraiser for Obama, and like that, this is not big news:

 

To illustrate how silly this preoccupation with lip service and symbolism really is, consider Obama’s relationships with Rick Warren and Rashid Khalidi. No one – or at least no one sober – believes that Obama’s cordial relations with Rick Warren represent anything other than a friendship the President has with a conservative pastor. No one, save perhaps unduly optimistic pro-life Obama voters, expects Obama to be harboring secret pro-life views that are “revealed” by his association with Warren. Virtually everyone accepts that Obama is very pro-choice and has a record to back this up, and we have no reason to assume that Obama is going to tangle with Democratic interest groups by breaking with his party’s traditional position. When it comes to Khalidi, however, the mere fact of their association and friendship supposedly proves that Obama is not as conventionally “pro-Israel” as he appears to be. This same over-interpretation of the smallest moves is at work in criticism of Obama’s interview, which just manages to miss everything that matters.

 

James Joyner is also unimpressed:

 

To be sure, the interview was substantive, with lines like, “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” But, lest we forget, the Bush administration went out of its way, including in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to make the same point, including repeating over and over that Islam was a “religion of peace,” a line with which Bush was repeatedly beaten over the head by less conciliatory conservatives.

 

For that matter, the Clinton administration made much the same noise. That didn’t stop al Qaeda from forming and twice declaring jihad on the United States and its allies or, for that matter, staging repeated attacks on American targets and beginning planning for the 9/11 attacks. Recall, too, that Bush didn’t begin his “war on terror” until after said acts of terrorism.

 

It’s hard to imagine a more conciliatory president than Jimmy Carter, who spent much of his presidency and post-presidency working for Middle East peace. Recall that it was he who declared the Middle East a vital American interest and he who was in office when the modern anti-American movement in that region was born with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

 

So long as the United States is dependent on Persian Gulf oil, considers Israel among its strongest allies, supports the Saudi royal family, and otherwise sees itself having interests worth defending in the Middle East and South Asia – which is to say, for the entirety of the foreseeable future – American policy will be anathema to radical forces in the region. No amount of happy talk will change that fact.

 

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we shouldn’t continue this type of outreach to moderate Muslims. We absolutely should. And, as Thomas Barnett and others argue, we should back up the talk with policies that contribute to the development of prosperity of the people who live there. But don’t expect that any of that will have significant, short-term impact on anti-Americanism and its unhappy byproducts.

 

But then there’s this view from one of Sullivan’s readers:

 

I am Muslim (a convert) and have been on board with Obama since Iowa. My husband’s family (Lebanese Sunni) have always been skeptical about Obama, his motives and his intentions throughout the campaign. I always forwarded them information during the campaign about Obama’s positions on the Middle East, the I/P situation, etc. telling them “This guy is different”. Their response has been “Just because his middle name is Hussein doesn’t mean he will be a friend to the Muslim world”, preferring to wait it out and see his actions.

 

Well, this interview changed a lot of their minds! The most skeptical, my brother in law, who is from Syria, was shocked that he mentioned his Muslim family, knowing that during the campaign he tried to downplay this information. He was also surprised (and elated) when Obama said “[The U.S] needs to start by listening… typically in the past we have started by dictating”. The rest of my family was pleasantly surprised, and very happy when he said (paraphrase) “But these are just words, and what we need now are actions.” This impressed them greatly. The most striking aspect they liked was his empathy for Muslim children and their lives. This really resonated for them.

 

If the reaction of my family is any indication (cynical, jaded, and suspicious of American influence) he hit it out of the park.

 

Well, that’s nice. And see Jeffrey Goldberg here. Goldberg talks to Al Arabiya’s Hisham Melhem about the interview:

 

Look, in the long run, he is telling the Muslim world that it’s going to have a difficult time demonizing him. He’s saying, “I’m willing to disagree with the people of the Muslim world respectfully.” He was miffed and angry by Zawahiri and Bin Laden, the way they speak of him. And he jumped on it and dealt with it. There’s a subtle shift here on how he looks at the war on al-Qaeda and the groups that collaborate with it. He doesn’t put Hamas and Hezbollah in the same category as al-Qaeda. Is there going to be disappointment later? We’re bound to have disappointments, but the main message is that a new wind is blowing. He’s closing down Guantanamo, sending Mitchell, pulling out of Iraq, and maybe I’m dreaming but I hope he would show Palestinians and Israelis tough love, both of them. Do you want to tell me that Bin Laden and all these nuts are not going to be nervous about him?

 

So it was a big deal, or it was a big deal the wrong way. For that, see Mac Ranger with Don’t Look Now but President Obama Just Sold America Down the Crapper – Obama didn’t say he’d wipe out Iran. Whatever.

 

And one of the National Review’s key writers, Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing an item for the National Catholic Register, here considers what happened at the Obama inauguration:

 

Rick Warren reminded us why all eyes were on the Capitol steps that Tuesday afternoon: “in His name.”

 

We’re a nation not just where you are free to believe or not to believe; we’re a nation founded for Him – so we could praise Him, so we could do His will.

 

So, if we are a Christian evangelical nation, created to praise Jesus, and for no other reason, just what was Obama doing? Obama did ask Warren to give that invocation. Obama must have been shining these Arabs on, just jerking them around.

 

What happened with this one interview then may or may not be a big deal. It depends on who is separating the wheat from the chaff.

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Even-Handedness, Obama al-Arabiya Interview, Obama and Israel, Obama and the Arab World, Obama and the Palestinians, Trusting One News Source over Another. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What May be a Big Deal or Nothing Much

  1. Pingback: Possible Better Angels « Just Above Sunset

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