Obama, Europe and the Arab World

There’s not really a whole lot to take issue with concerning the content of President Barack Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya. In terms of the scripted aspects — Israelis’ right to security, Palestinians’ right to a state — he was on point, and where he ventured off the script, it was to offer some compelling improvisation. For me, three things stood out: the remarks about his Muslim family members; his reference not to Israelis and Palestinians, but to Israeli and Palestinian children; and his emphasis on listening.

What they all had in common was the way in which they personalized the relationships between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and Israelis and Palestinians. That’s smart because conflict, whether interpersonal or intergroup, is sustained by assigning impersonal signifiers to the adversary. And one of the first steps towards resolving conflict is to remove those signifiers so that the personal qualities they replaced come back to the surface. Interpersonal conflict becomes harder to resolve when a behavior — “My husband doesn’t pick up after himself” — becomes a description — “My husband’s a slob.” In the same way, it’s harder to resolve a conflict between peoples than a conflict between people.

Where there’s been debate about the interview, it’s been over its effectiveness. The consensus seems to be that while it was impressive and well-received, one interview isn’t going to change anything. What matters is whether the actions meet the expectations created by the words.

One thing I find shortsighted, though, is the idea that the only way to judge the interview is by the reaction of the Arab world. Because while the Arab world was the principal target audience, I suspect it wasn’t the only target audience. At the very least, it was not the only audience listening. Europeans were as well, and what they heard will go a long way towards reassuring them not only that Obama is willing to make the commitment to engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — and the region’s broader divisions — that was so urgently requested and so sorely missed during the eight years of the Bush administration, but also that his vision of how to do so corresponds to theirs.

That will be instrumental in making sure the support and diplomatic resources the U.S. will need from Europe are forthcoming. It’s no coincidence that George Mitchell will stop over in France and Great Britain (i.e. the two countries that have already gotten a head start on engaging Syria and most probably Hamas, as well) on his way back to Washington, for instance. And with regard to Iran, Obama needs European commitments to make strengthened sanctions effective should his much-anticipated diplomatic engagement fail.

The problem with isolating “rogue” but ultimately inescapable regimes (e.g. Syria) is that re-engagement subsequently creates the diplomatic equivalent of a bidding war, with the resulting “influence inflation” undermining whatever impact the isolation might have had. So the big challenge for Obama will be to roll back the Bushadministration’s regional self-isolation without incurring maximalcosts. Europe can help him to do that and is more likely to, knowing that their own concerns are being taken into consideration.

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