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Paul Jay speaks to Matt Welch, Editor-in-Chief of Reason magazine, in an effort to understand what President Obama’s inaugural speech and first days in office signify.
Welch says Obama is going to maintain much of Bush’s second term politics, which saw him more willing to talk to regimes that were “unfavorable” to the United States.

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The cult of the Presidency Pt. 2

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the next segment of our interview with Matt Welch. He’s the editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, and he used to op-ed edit The Los Angeles Times. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: I thought there was something interesting happened in the speech today. Barack Obama, who went to AIPAC and said everything AIPAC wanted to hear—and if anyone doesn’t know what AIPAC is, it’s the American Israeli Policy Committee [sic], I think. Close enough?

WELCH: It’s close enough.

JAY: Which is a lobby group that represents the, you could say, right-wing politics of Israel and the neoconservative politics and such of America and some of the Jewish community—not all. And [Obama] went so far as to talk about “Unify Jerusalem, and Israel is our ally that we can never abandon,” and such, which is kind of—everyone says it’s the rhetoric you have to say if you want to get elected in the United States. In a speech today, he didn’t mention Gaza, but he also didn’t mention staying with our traditional allies. He didn’t go either way on the issue, which is interesting in the midst of a war. One can kind of critique him for not saying something about Gaza, which human rights watch and others have suggested what Israel is doing there is in the realm of war crimes. So you could critique him for having not said anything about that. But it’s also interesting that he didn’t do the normal kissing of the ring, that we will never abandon Israel. Does that tell us anything?

WELCH: I’m not sure. I think that the speech today in general was really short on proper nouns. You know, there wasn’t a lot of countries invoked. We didn’t talk about Russia, and Vladimir Putin will certainly be in our dreams over the next four, eight, and twenty years. It was a time for broad strokes and not to get bogged down into individual countries’ politics. He did have a shout out to our allies who have sort of developed economies, and it was more on the terms of, you know, we’re going to altogether not neglect parts of the world that need our help, which doesn’t really apply, necessarily, to Israel or Gaza. I think that there is something potent to the critique that Obama is going to preserve many aspects of Bush’s second term. Bush’s second term, much to the chagrin of a lot of neoconservatives, was much more—”conciliatory” is too strong of a word, but it was just much more willing to talk with regimes that are disfavored by America. It was much more emphasizing to the extent of which that the White House ever emphasizes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [sic] and also having American involvement in it. In the first term, Bush was like, you know, “American involvement doesn’t work. Let’s just stay out of it.” So I think you’re going to see a lot more of that under Obama, and I think the pace of withdrawal from Iraq might be slower than what he originally said, and a lot of his policies toward Central Asia might be more or less the same.

JAY: But in terms of a new mindset, which is what he talked about at one point in the campaign—.

WELCH: Early.

JAY: Early.

WELCH: Very early.

JAY: Early. And maybe it’s before Edwards was kicked out. I don’t know. Maybe when Kucinich was still on the podium in some of these debates. Yeah, because I interviewed Susan Rice during the New Hampshire campaign, and I asked her after—into the interview I said, “Barack Obama’s talked about a new mindset, but I’m not hearing a new mindset. A new mindset in Afghanistan would mean not just more troops; it would mean at the very least some real plan for the Afghan economy, at the very least, if not something more.” And she actually got up and walked out of the interview.

WELCH: Oh, really?

JAY: She wasn’t very happy with the question. Yeah.

WELCH: He’s mentioned Afghanistan today just as “We’re going to forge a peace there,” or something like that, which was an odd choice.

JAY: But you raised a point a little earlier which I think is very important. And he ends by saying, “We have to retain our position, regain our position in leadership.” But the tone of modesty, does it suggest that this is an administration willing to catch up with, with which is the new reality, which is: America actually is a country amongst others; it may be it’s still the biggest economy, maybe the biggest military, but it’s more one of many countries than it’s ever been in the last hundred years.

WELCH: He did definitely hit that note, and he also stressed that it’s our ideals and our ability to live up to them that give us our power, which is more of a Joseph Nye soft-power type of critique. Yes, he did that. But what’s going to happen here, actually, tangibly, in the world, there’s going to be a honeymoon for the new American president. I was just in France for a month, and oh my god, I mean, there was almost as many Obama magazine covers as there were of, you know, Napoleon in the Bourbons, or Sarkozy dressed up as Napoleon in the Bourbons. There is going to be a wonderful Camelot for the rest of the world, because they all sort of hated the crazy Texas cowboy George Bush, and they think Obama is a dreamboat. He’s going to have people eating out of his hand and wanting to be his best friend.

JAY: At least in Western Europe.

WELCH: And not just Western Europe: Eastern Europe too; not Russia, but largely everywhere in the world you’re going to see a lot of this. And that’s going to be a very tempting thing for him to do. He said in his speech today he will gladly seize the opportunity to lead. That’s what we do—we’re Americans. And he’s going to be in a climate where people are going to say, “Lead us, lead us, O great Obama.” How is he not going to use that as a reason to take a leadership role, however that is defined?

JAY: Certainly, there’s going to be a lot of that; but as certainly, in the Muslim world and much of the world, not to say something about what’s going on in Gaza says to the world, “business as usual.” If you don’t say something critical of what’s been going on there, it feels like the same policy, which is: we will side with Israel, no matter what it does.

WELCH: Right. Well, I mean, I think that Obama has done very little to suggest that we’re going to change our general stance toward Israel. And I think that it’s actually semi-unrealistic to expect that. I think American policy towards Israel has been broadly popular over the years. Whether everyone in the world likes that and whether we, as Americans or journalists or whatever, like that ourselves, there is a broad sympathy towards Israel, a feeling that that is the democratic country and sort of an oasis of a nightmare there. And other than that, we don’t really look at it too closely, ’cause it’s kind of awkward, with the people bleeding and the kids and all that. So I don’t think that he’s going to say it, but it’ll be interesting to see what he says, not today but tomorrow.

JAY: Well, [inaudible] what he does, because he’s going to have to deal with this situation now. I mean, the United States has to do something. I mean, I suppose he can sit back as the Bush administration did, but he has actually promised to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

WELCH: I think we’ll see a lot of Hillary Clinton taking the Warren Christopher shuttle planes back and forth in the Middle East going forward, absolutely. I mean, he has staked his name on the idea that he is going to talk with everybody, that he believes in sort of a proactive diplomacy.

JAY: He talked to the Muslim world in his speech, and he said, “We offer you a mutual interest and,” I think, “respect.” But I don’t know if that’s going to be taken seriously in the Muslim world. Let’s put it this way: he’s going to be judged on Gaza to see how serious that respect is.

WELCH: Sure. And I think he’ll also, in the medium term, be judged on what he meant by “the unclenched fist,” which is a very poetic phrase of, you know, basically, if you’re a dictator and you’re abusing your own citizens, yet you unclench your fist, we will offer our hand in friendship. And that describes a lot of countries that America has been shoveling aid to all these years in the Middle East for strategic regions. That fist is clenched very tight in Saudi Arabia, so that will also tell us a lot about what the administration’s going to be like and whether there is going to be any difference with the previous one, two, and five administrations.

JAY: Yeah, I agree with you. I think, if anything, if there’s a profound change, it will be a change towards Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

WELCH: Right.

JAY: There we’ll see real change. If it’s the same business as usual with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, then we’re not really seeing a new mindset in foreign policy. Come back again soon and we’ll talk more.

WELCH: I’d love to. Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And, again, we survive because you donate, so please do.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.