NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Obama's first television interview after taking office was granted not to "60 Minutes" or to CNN, but to the Arab satellite network Al Arabiya. The president was asked if under his administration, the U.S. stands toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would change to a more holistic approach.
(Soundbite of television interview)
President BARACK OBAMA: If we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress. Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. It will not stop being a strong ally of the United States, and I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount.
CONAN: President Obama in an interview that aired yesterday on the Arab television network Al Arabiya. As you might expect reaction to the interview here and around the world has been mixed, we'll hear two views in a moment. And we want to hear from you. If you heard or read the interview, what was the message you received? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on Talk of the Nation. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and he joins us from his office in College Park, Maryland. Nice to have you back on the program.
Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Peace and Development, University of Maryland): Good to be with you.
CONAN: And Bradley Blakeman worked in the White House for George W. Bush, he's a Republican strategist. He joins us today from radio station WRHU on the campus of Hofstra University on Long Island in New York, and nice to have you as well.
Mr. BRADLEY BLAKEMAN (Republican Strategist): Neal, thank you and hello, professor.
Prof. TELHAMI: Hello.
CONAN: And Shibley Telhami, let's begin with you. There was a distinctly different tone.
Prof. TELHAMI: There's no question. I think, you know, you've heard President Obama mention the term respect a lot. We heard those in inauguration speech. It's very important. That's the kind of tone he wants to set. We have heard different tone from the Bush administration. He's also talked about the centrality of the Arab-Israeli issue which is perceived to be central in the Arab world. I think it's the prism through which most Arabs see America. And you've heard him speak of the connectedness of issues, something the Bush administration has not talked about. And so I think in tone and in substance he presented something that was obviously clear in much of the Arab world, particularly because he backed it up with his first decision of closing Guantanamo, which has been a symbol of the sort of things that we've done that we're not received well across the world, but especially in the Arab and Muslim countries, and having activated his diplomacy on the Middle East and dispatched George Mitchell as his special envoy. But having said all of this, I have to tell you that it is a mistake to think that this is - this changes everything. I think it sets a new tone people are listening, they are curious. Even President Obama himself said, I know I'll be judged not by my words but by my deeds, so watch for what's to come. We've heard a lot of criticism in the Arab world itself because much of the Arab world is looking at America today through the prism of Gaza. Gaza is the only story really for the past month, people looking at the devastation and the humanitarian crisis. And they expected to hear something on that that is stronger than what they had heard from Bush administration. So there's a little bit criticism that's coming on that. But I think he sets a tone that's different and I think it's being received in our world.
CONAN: And I want to get to Bradley Blakeman who has been more critical of the president's tone.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: I have, I think the president in his interview in Al Arabiya was weak and pandering. I think his decision on Guantanamo was as wrong as his decision on the surge during the campaign. He is making political decisions without the benefit of policy and his people around him who could give him sound advice. He doesn't have an attorney general nor does he have a CIA director, and he's making these important decisions in a vacuum because he's trying to make good on a campaign promise. But we don't know what is going to come of these 240 detainees. Are they going to be tried, Mr. President? Are they going to be deported? What is your plan other than closing Guantanamo and moving these people to another venue? Call it what you want, but he has no plan outside the closing of Guantanamo.
Prof. TELHAMI: Can I say...
CONAN: Shibley just a moment and let's go back to the speech for a moment. That was just a very small part of his speech. I know you were critical of other aspects.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: I was. I thought that the president, by sending George Mitchell there as a broker was presumptuous. We should not send George Mitchell to the region as a broker. That shouldn't be his purpose. He should go there as a fact finder to meet with these people. Some people he's meeting for the first time. Find out what their concerns are, report back to the president. Who are we to say that we're going to broker anything? I think that's been our problem over the years - is we've been too engaged and too upfront without the international partners we need surrounding us to solve these very heady issues. So, also on Islamic fascism. The president wants to use different language. Mr. President, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. These people are using religion as a weapon and a sword, and we should call it for what it is. Islamic fascism is dangerous not because I say it because from their very mouths of the Iranian president, he seeks the destruction of Israel and the destruction of United States in the name of a God.
Prof. TELHAMI: Let me just say first of all on Mitchell, the president said actually, his first mission is to listen. And he said very clearly actually very, very - in his speech that he first intends to listen, not dictate or broker for that matter that it was a listening mission, and that was very clear. But you know we've talked this tough talk for the past eight years, and that has been the policy that the American people rejected, that is the policy that has set us behind internationally. That is the policy that has made America weaker, not stronger because it is weaker and everybody senses that we're weak that's why we've had the election results. Obama did what he promised in the campaign, what he told the American people he was going to do. He said he was going to set this kind of tone. He's fulfilling his promises and on Guantanamo. Frankly, I don't understand it. I mean, I think that - he didn't say I'm closing it tomorrow. He said, I'm closing within a year. And everybody understands this is not a new issue. We know what the consequences are. We know what you have to do with prisoners. This has been studied. Many organizations including a human rights organization have discussed the options of where to move them, whether third parties would take them, whether we put them in our own prisoners, who would be released. This is not a new issue. It's a question of...
Mr. BLAKEMAN: But professor, excuse me.
Prof. TELHAMI: Implementing it over a period of time. And it does require.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: Professor, he doesn't....
Prof. TELHAMI: Study and that's why he's giving it within a year.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: He's made his decisions in a vacuum. He doesn't have the CIA director in place nor his attorney general who must carry out this policy. He did it as a knee-jerk reaction to make good on a campaign promise without an ultimate solution. It's not the way to go about it. This is the same mistake he made on the surge.
CONAN: Very briefly, Bradley Blakeman. Didn't John McCain, the Republican candidate also promise to close Guantanamo Bay?
Mr. BLAKEMAN: He did. But John McCain is not the president and he didn't make good on that promise because he didn't have the power to do it. But I can assure you, John McCain would have gone about it in the way that I'm suggesting, and that is, you get your people in place, you study the issue, you take the advice from professionals and then you make a decision. You don't make a decision in a vacuum not knowing what the end result is going to be and that's exactly what we don't know. What, is Pelosi going to take all these people in her district?
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Again, we're talking with Republican strategist, former White House staffer, Bradley Blakeman and with Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, about the president's interview yesterday on Al Arabiya, his first television interview since being elected president. This is Don-Al(ph). Don-Al with us from Malta, the country of Malta in the Mediterranean.
DON-AL (Caller): Good evening, I want to say, Mr. Conan, I want to thank you also for having Dr. Telhami, Telhami who was a very well understood the world on this part of the world. I want to say also Mr. Obama showed he's genuine, sincerity that he's - at least he wants to act unlike some leader on the past. And it really shows and that was also tons related several languages not just Maltese, French, Arabic and I really believe that this - there is a very good chance that Mr. Obama or President Obama viewed very favorably because he comes on as a very sincere and not influenced by...
CONAN: And you're right, we need to wait the deeds and not just words, but do you think it was significant that the first interview he gave on television as president was to Al Arabiya?
DON-AL: That's great as they probably showed that he's genuinely interested in resolving this issue. And he addressed the Arabic and the Muslim world at the same time because this is not just a Muslim or Arabic world or Middle East, this is a very global issue. When he showed that the first two weeks in his presidency, he's extremely powerful the way around the globe as you may you know already.
CONAN: Let's - Bradley Blakeman what was the symbolism, the importance of granting that interview again not to CNN, not to "60 Minutes" but to Al Arabiya.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: Well, I think he wants to reach out to the Muslim world. I have no problem with that, the fact that he spoke to Al Arabiya. What I have a problem is what he said, most particularly what he said about Iran. The question was pointed to him very matter-of-factly, will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And he said, one thing in the campaign and different to the Muslim audience and the Arabic audience when he did not answer that question. The question must be answered by an American president that we will never ever tolerate a nuclear Iran. Not that it will cause an arms race in the region. It can never get to that point. They seek the destruction of Israel and the United States can never happen. Why didn't he be as emphatic with them as he did with us trying to get our votes?
CONAN: Don-Al, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
DON-AL: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Bradley Blakeman, a former White House staffer in the Bush administration and with Shibley Telhami about the president's interview yesterday on Al Arabiya. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Bill, Bill with us from San Francisco.
BILL (Caller): Yeah, hi. I just - I listened and watched the interview and I was very impressed with President Obama and that fact that he did grant the first interview to an Arabic-speaking outlet. My main impression was that he offered friendship right away to a very, very important culture in the world that being the Muslim culture. And based on his background, especially in Indonesia where I spent many years myself
CONAN: Mm hmm.
BILL: So, I hope that also he did mention that he wants to be sure that he's not going to reward cultures that that take down other cultures or in effect, that's what he said.
CONAN: Yeah, he repeated what he'd said in his inaugural address. Shilbey Telhami, about those who seek to destroy, we will seek them out and destroy them. We will not give in. And he also mentioned that as we played that clip of tape, he regards the security of the state of Israel as paramount.
Prof. TELHAMI: You know, and I think that - you know, talking about strength in against force strength when you stretch your muscles and talk rhetorically and appear much on and everybody else is coming after you and you, and you're weaker and you're losing allies, that's not strength. What he's talking about here is he's going to be tough on those who are attacking our interests and attacking the United States of America, particularly al-Qaeda, and he's going to be tougher. And he had said that before, he's repeated that among the Arab audience. And he - what he wants to differentiate between that, to tell them he doesn't have the impression that the vast majority of the Muslim people either support them or like them. And he's going to change the rhetoric that seems to implicate everybody else who is not on the side of al-Qaeda and that he intends to be tougher on al-Qaeda than the Bush administration has been. That's the rhetoric that I heard. He didn't shy away from saying it to the Arab world. If he was so concerned about people who are in the region or might be sympathetic of al-Qaeda, he certainly didn't show it because he confronted that upfront. On Iran, you know, I think that the tone was just right. I think that this is the time when he wants to start engaging Iran. And his position is clear on this. The U.S. is opposed to Iran having nuclear weapons. I don't think he needed to repeat that in that particular arena. I don't understand what the purpose of that would be. The idea here was we will stretch our hand to every country...
Mr. BLAKEMAN: Because, professor, those are the people who need to hear it. Those are the people who need to hear it.
Prof. TELHAMI: The Arab world is not Iran. Iran is not particularly popular in the Arab world per se. Iran benefits in the Arab world only when people are angry with America and seem to stand up to America. So the issue is nor really about Iran. People in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Jordan don't want to see Iran powerful - Iran is not an Arab country, remember that. This is an Arabic interview, in Arabic media.
CONAN: Professor, Professor Telhami, to be fair, he was asked a direct question.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: Yes.
CONAN: Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran, and to be fair, he did not answer it.
Prof. TELHAMI: Well, I mean, I heard the tone to be just the right tone. And I think that in this kind of arena when you're reaching out and you're sending a signal that you want to talk, I think there are many other places where you can repeat that - that we will not live with Iran as a nuclear weapon.
CONAN: All right. Bill, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it. Let's see if we can go now to Robert. Robert with us from Boise, Idaho.
ROBERT (Caller): Good afternoon, guys.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
ROBERT: Real quick. The guest that says McCain would, you know, assures him - you know, assures that he will handle it differently, that's a little presumptuous.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: I know John - I know John McCain, my friend, and I'm not speaking presumptuously. I happen to know the man. I know his staff, I know his positions and I know how he would have handled this. He would not have handled it the way Obama did. I can assure you of that.
ROBERT: OK. Let's move on. I don't have a problem with the content of the speech, but I think he was a little decisive - device, I'm sorry, the timing solely because the rabid right is going to look at this and say, see, see, he's a closet Muslim. That's what I'm afraid of. I would have been more comfortable at the exact thing, verbatim of the speech in front of Larry King or even on the view for that matter. Not - I don't have a problem of what he said, just when and where he said it. I think it really poorly thought out.
CONAN: So he should not have gone on Al Arabiya as his first televised interview?
CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Robert.
ROBERT: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And as you look at the interview, Bradley Blakeman, we just have about a minute left, he did reiterate his strong support for the state of Israel and said that was not going to change under any circumstances - that the security of the state of Israel was paramount. Again, something that might not play all that well to an Arab audience.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: Well, it's double speak. In one breath he says it, and in the next breath he's not as strong. And I can tell you this. He said it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state. He's not going to put a time frame on it. There is a Palestinian state, there are borders. Israel gave them land. They choose not to make it a state and to be a legitimate state by not recognizing the state of Israel. That's the problem. Is before you get to the stage of peace.
Prof. TELHAMI: Where is the state of Palestine? I must have missed it. I'm a student of this issue for...
Mr. BLAKEMAN: They have Gaza and they have...
Prof. TELHAMI: Who has Gaza?
Mr. BLAKEMAN: They do. They're in control.
Prof. TELHAMI: Since when Gaza is a state?
Mr. BLAKEMAN: That's the trouble, professor, is they have not sought to legitimize it by recognizing Israel and living within their borders.
Prof. TELHAMI: Well, Abu Mazen has. Why isn't there a state in the West Bank? Abu Mazen has recognized Israel and agreed to live with Israel peacefully.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: Because the Palestinian don't speak with one voice, sir.
CONAN: This is an argument that is going to continue for some time. Thank you both for being with us today.
Mr. BLAKEMAN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and Bradley Blakeman who worked in the White House for George W. Bush with us today from WRHU on the campus of Hofstra University on Long Island in New York. This is NPR News.
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