Obama the Sphinx

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 27, 2009; 1:48 PM

President Obama officially launched his push for peace in the Middle East yesterday, sending his new envoy George Mitchell to the region and declaring his desire for genuine progress -- "not just photo-ops."

Obama's sense of urgency -- and his aversion to photo ops -- contrasts starkly with former President Bush's half-hearted last-minute effort to bring the fractious parties together.

But it's unclear how much Obama's basic view of the region contrasts with that of his predecessor.

He says Mitchell's first visit will primarily be a listening tour, and he has not yet declared any obvious shifts in U.S. policy. But I'll bet that his view of the region will be more complex and considerably less black-and-white than Bush's. If nothing else, he is likely to expand the scope of the debate within the White House to include those who hold critical views of some Israeli actions.

Will he abandon Bush's absolute support for Israel and instead become an "honest broker" -- which requires some leaning on all parties? So far, it's all just a matter of speculation.

There's no doubt, however, that Obama, in choosing the Arab television network al-Arabiya for the first sit-down interview of his presidency, made a profound statement about the importance he places in restoring good relations with the Muslim world.

Obama's Words

Obama briefly spoke to reporters before a meeting yesterday with Mitchell, the former senator who helped resolve the Northern Ireland conflict, and newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It's important to me personally," he said.

"And the charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress. And when I say progress, not just photo-ops, but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground, so that people feel more secure in their lives, so that they feel that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of their children can be met; that is going to be our task.

"It is not something that we're going to be able to do overnight, but I am absolutely confident that, if the United States is engaged in a consistent way and in an early fashion, that we can make genuine progress."

Here is the transcript and video of Obama's interview with Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of al-Arabiya.

Describing Mitchell's charge, Obama explained that "what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues --and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen. He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response."

Obama stressed that "Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."

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