Analysis: A kinder, gentler sheriff

US President Barack Obama said to be 'pushing all the right buttons.'

obama and clinton laugh about iran 248  (photo credit: AP)
obama and clinton laugh about iran 248
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama spent his first week in office taking steps to signal to the nation and the world that the Bush administration is over. He ordered the Guantanamo military prison to close, the CIA to stop using controversial interrogation practices and environmental agencies to move toward stricter fuel efficiency. And the Middle East, a region that featured in some of George W. Bush's most trying moments as president, formed a central pillar of that effort. Obama expended a considerable amount of energy emphasizing that there was a new sheriff in town - one that doesn't fire from the hip or trash-talk. Instead, Obama, in the first TV interview of his presidency, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya on Tuesday that "my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect." And last Thursday, in his first public discourse on foreign policy, he focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He also took to the time to meet twice with newly appointed Middle East envoy George Mitchell before dispatching him to the region before his first week in office was over. In case anyone missed the intended point of these gestures, State Department spokesman Robert Wood, along with others, stressed that Obama "really wants to engage seriously in a dialogue with the people of the Middle East, a two-way dialogue." Obama has been careful to confine these moves to the symbolic, rather than substantive level - even the Mitchell trip, the most concrete piece of the new program, comes at a time when the Israeli government is in such pre-election flux that nothing tangible is likely to come out of it. Still, the outreach seems to be having its desired effect. "The interview was amazing. He pressed all the right buttons," said Gaith Al-Omari, advocacy director for the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, referring to the concept of respect, dialogue and the positive aspirations of Muslims. "The people that I talk with back in the region all seem very impressed," he added, noting that the talkbacks on the Al-Arabiya site after the interview were overwhelmingly positive. "The policy has not changed. What has changed is the language, the approach, bringing everyone into the process," he noted, contending that the interview showed "it's possible to continue with US policy, not give up US strategic interests, but to do it in a way that doesn't outrage." Indeed, in the interview Obama declared, "I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount." When asked about Iran and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Obama first objected to the threats Iran has made against Israel. And Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that the possibility of using force against Iran because of its nuclear program hadn't been withdrawn under the new administration. "If you have options, that's a very important part of it - the ability to back it up. I believe it's got to be a last resort, and in that regard, I've seen nothing that would indicate that that's changed at all," he said in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post. While Mullen emphasized the importance of engagement with the Islamic Republic - something the Bush administration eschewed - he also acknowledged that he doesn't expect much, calling Teheran "unhelpful in many, many ways, in many, many areas, and so I wouldn't be overly optimistic at this point." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his part, is now taunting Obama for not reorienting the US enough, using the latter's campaign catchphrase in calling for "profound changes" such as ending support for Israel and apologizing to Iran's leaders. Yet rejectionist countries like Iran and Syria, as well as their supporters, are finding themselves in a difficult place when it comes to riling up the Arab street. Without Bush to use as a rallying cry, and public opinion well-disposed towards an American leader with Muslim family - something Obama pointed out in the Al-Arabiya interview - they have little ammunition at their disposal other than inflamed rhetoric. Al-Omari noted that there was the potential for a letdown further on; with Obama needing to be able to show results at some point, and that right now the new president was in the "honeymoon" period. But Obama has already made some inroads with his overtures in a region that prizes symbolism. While Bush might have been the first US president to enshrine a Palestinian state in America's foreign policy program, he got little credit for it because the Arab world hadn't believed he meant what he said. "People did not take Bush seriously, because they took what he said in a different light," Al-Omari said. And, he continued, there was now a climate that made it easier for America's allies in the Arab world to work with the US without being seen as betraying their people or values. All of which works well from the Israeli perspective, where officials don't care much about the gestures America makes as long as its bedrock support for Israeli security needs stays intact. In fact, if Obama can gain Arab support without compromising any of Israel's core interests, they can say, "Howdy pardner!"