Quin Hillyer complains about Obama’s first television interview, which Jake Tapper reports will be with Al-Arabiya. This is different, but it doesn’t mean very much one way or the other. 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. The claim that Obama represents a Rohrschach test, which I have seen so many people make, is really a statement about how badly the people making the claim misread what Obama tries to do. It’s not that Obama makes a secret of what he thinks or does not have a clear record on where he stands, but that very few people on either side of any given debate seem willing to believe that Barack Hussein Obama can really be as establishmentarian and conventional as he is. People project their own hopes and fears onto him not because he is a blank screen, but because they refuse to believe what they see when they look at his record and statements. Like his acceptance of national security ideology that I discussed last week, Obama’s establishmentarian instincts are an important part of the reason why he was able to win the election, but there is no reason to doubt that he will continue to follow such instincts just as he will keep adhering to the ideology of national security.
Hillyer is citing this interview as support for the utterly unfounded idea that “there ain’t no way that Obama is gonna support Israel when push comes to shove.” Never mind that Obama has done exactly this throughout his public career when it has mattered. Hillyer’s complaint is consistent with the tiresome theme developed during the election, again without any basis in Obama’s record or statements, that Obama lacked in appropriate “pro-Israel” zeal. To support this claim, tiny, insignificant quotes and episodes were turned into meaningful signs of how Obama might be more sympathetic (i.e., “too sympathetic”) to Palestinians. As I noted in my post-election article on Obama, both sides of the debate invested these episodes with significance they did not possess–proponents of an “even-handed” approach were hopeful, and conventional “pro-Israel” sorts were fearful, but there was a strong desire all around to imagine that Obama’s view of the conflict was anything other than what he said it was. We see more of this via Leon Hadar’s post on the kind of arcane textual interpretation that some people on the side of reforming U.S. policy are reduced to making to find some glimmer of encouragement.
After all, the thinking seems to go, he was the “change” candidate–how could the “change” candidate be so boringly conventional on such a controversial subject? Therefore, he must be set on making major changes to U.S. policy, which encourages critics of the status quo and frightens defenders of the same. The same people who declare Mr. Bush to have been the best friend Israel ever had warn gravely that Obama will endanger Israel, despite the clear record that Obama and Bush hold exactly the same positions and have supported the very same policies. If you believe Bush is a good friend to Israel, you really must believe the same about his successor. To argue otherwise is as if supporters of Taiwan had run around warning that John “War for Quemoy and Matsu” Kennedy was going to abandon Taiwan to the Chinese. That’s how crazy this sort of criticism of Obama is.
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.
Update: James Joyner discusses the interview and reactions to it here.