Obama Extends Hand To Arabs and Muslims

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

President Obama has launched a determined effort to change the tone, if not yet the substance, of U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, saying he is eager to listen to their concerns and acknowledging that Americans "have not been perfect" in their dealings with them.

The early appointments of presidential emissaries to the Middle East and to Afghanistan and Pakistan; the announced closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the choice of Arab satellite network al-Arabiya for the first formal interview of his presidency; first-week National Security Council meetings on Iraq and Afghanistan; and telephone calls to regional leaders on his first full day in office were reflections both of the seriousness of the issues and a message to governments and the public, administration officials said.

Obama's initial conversation with one Middle Eastern leader conveyed little of substance, that country's Washington ambassador said: "He just wanted to reach out on the first day as a sign and demonstration of his determination to engage."

Although Obama told al-Arabiya that "we're going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital," the 100-day deadline he initially set for the speech is unlikely to be kept, an official said. A venue has not been chosen, Obama's schedule is focused on pressing domestic concerns, and a flurry of must-attend international summits are scheduled for April.

The White House is hoping that its energetic early days -- and the rapid dispatch of Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell and Afghanistan-Pakistan representative Richard C. Holbrooke on their own first regional trips -- will send the desired message about relations with the Muslim world at home and abroad while the new administration begins to determine what its actual policies will be on the ground.

"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," Obama said in the interview. "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect."

In a meeting with Jewish leaders early last year, candidate Obama described communications as "the battlefield we have to worry about . . . where we have been losing badly over the last seven years" of the Bush administration.

"We're not going to wait until the end of my administration to deal with Palestinian and Israeli peace," Obama told al-Arabiya, "We're going to start now. It may take a long time to do, but we're going to do it now."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday declined to characterize the new outreach as a complete rejection of the Bush administration's policies. "Where continuity is appropriate, we are committed to doing that," she told reporters. "In areas of the world that have felt either overlooked or not receiving appropriate attention for the problems that they are experiencing, there's a welcoming of the engagement that we are promising. So it's not any kind of repudiation or indictment of the past eight years so much as an excitement and an acceptance of how we're going to be doing business."

Asked for details about how the administration would simultaneously address the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Israel's right of self-defense, Clinton said: "I think we've said all we're going to say about the Israeli-Palestinian situation as we send our envoy out. . . . We're going to wait and let him report back to us about the way forward."

As Mitchell held his first meetings yesterday in Cairo -- with E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and the head of Egypt's intelligence service -- violence erupted again in the Gaza Strip with attacks by both Hamas and Israel, the worst since an uneasy cease-fire was declared more than a week ago after 22 days of fighting. Mitchell is scheduled to meet today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before moving on to Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Responses so far to Obama's outreach have been largely positive, but further action is awaited. Obama's desire for "a strong and fruitful relationship with the Arab world" was a "positive development," Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told Saudi-owned al-Arabiya. Obama has praised a 2002 Saudi peace plan calling for normalized Arab ties with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied since 1967. Arab states, Saud said, are waiting to answer the administration's questions.

Hamas, which initially dismissed Obama's pledge of new initiatives in the region as identical to Bush administration policies, appeared to temper its verbal assault yesterday. Hamas official Ahmed Yousef said in an interview with al-Jazeera television that there had been "some positive things" in Obama's statements, the Associated Press reported from Cairo.

In a statement posted on sympathetic Web sites yesterday, the Taliban called the Guantanamo closure a "positive step" but said it was an insufficient change in Bush's "satanic" policies in the region and the world, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist sites.

Iran has made no response to Obama's public offer of a diplomatic handshake. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Monday that he is open to a dialogue with the Obama administration but that he would not accept any preconditions to talks.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company