HEARTS AND MINDS…. Yesterday, the president dispatched George Mitchell, Obama’s newly named special envoy to the Middle East, to the region, only four days after taking the job. It coincided with the president’s first post-inaugural media interview, which 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 on improving the nation’s standing in the Middle East is obvious. And while concrete policy steps — beginning a withdrawal policy in Iraq, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo — matter, Obama’s interview with al-Arabiya will also help deliver a message likely to resonate.
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.”
Obama added that his message to the Muslim world is 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 went to considerable lengths to 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.”
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.
We’ll see, in time, whether public diplomacy like this has a lasting effect, but it appears that Obama is getting off on the right foot, with exactly the right message.