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From Baghdad, Leila Fadel joins Gareth Porter in DC to discuss Obama’s message for Middle East

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What will Obama do in Iraq? Pt. 2

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: So welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re continuing coverage of the inauguration of Barack Obama. And we left off discussing with Leila Fadel in Baghdad and Gareth Porter here in the McClatchy studios in Washington, DC. And one of the things in the speech was an omission, I would guess—at least, an omission from my own point of view—which was nothing about what’s happening in Gaza. And, Leila, you were talking about that when you were just in the midst of telling us that in Iraq right now it’s Gaza that people are talking about. So why don’t you pick up from there?

LEILA FADEL, BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: I was just saying that in the Arab world as a whole, what happened most recently in Gaza and what is, you know, continuing to be an evolving event is what is on everybody’s mind, and it is an indication of what will come in the future. But what the Arabs and the Muslims in the Arab world were struck by was the silence of America, and, again, in his speech nothing was said. Of course, it’s a dynamite issue, and it may be that he doesn’t want to start his presidency by right away making a decision on where he stands on what happened in the last three weeks.

JAY: And it’s been a very big issue that he’s been silent about this.

FADEL: It is. I mean, he hasn’t said anything, and the silence in general; although, you know, the one thing I do want to say about this speech and about the change today is that since 2001, I think there has been an us-and-them mentality that’s been felt in the Arab world and has been felt in Iraq. And in his speech today, he did make a gesture towards the Muslim world specifically, saying—he didn’t say “us and them” and “fight,” he said “mutual respect,” he said “mutual interest.” He also has fighting words in there, but in the end there is some sort of olive branch, if you will [inaudible] “We can talk. We can sit down. It’s not all going to be about tanks here.”

JAY: Gareth, I was saying in the break earlier that this speech a little bit to me was like what a lawyer tells you to do when you go to testify in a court case, which is: don’t say more than you have to, because someone’s going to use it against you. So limit yourself to what you must say. I kind of thought that’s sort of what the speech is. I can’t say it’s a criticism, because in terms of the political jigsaw puzzle he has to deal with, maybe that is the smartest thing for him to do is not say too much here and have something more measured.

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: Well, I think you’re right that there were. I mean, I think that applies very much to the issue that we were just talking about, which is Israel and the Palestinians, which, as Leila says, is now the center of attention in the Middle East. There’s no question about it. The fact that he said nothing about it, to me, is an indication that it is a very sore spot in the policy of the United States in the eyes of the president himself. He’s very uncomfortable with Israel’s policy at this moment.

JAY: And you can say that, what, because of the lack of the traditional we-will-always-stand-by-our-ally language?

PORTER: Or even anything remotely approaching that. I mean, in other words, there is nothing in the speech that can be remotely interpreted as a reaffirmation of the traditional US policy relationship with Israel and, you know, in the broader senses I mentioned earlier—the necessity to stand up to Iran firmly in its confrontation with Israel, anything like that. Let me just return, though, to this very important phrase that you highlighted, the phrases “mutual respect” and “mutual interest.” I think that is not just a signal to the Muslim world in general. I also think that it was aimed at Iran, and that’s for the following reason. This phrase “mutual respect” is one that, when I was in Tehran a few weeks ago, was pointed out to me by insiders in the Iranian government as being the phrase that was most important to hear from Obama with regard to Iran. So the fact that he used it in this speech suggests to me that he, you know—.

JAY: This idea of mutual respect and/or mutual interest.

PORTER: Yes. And I think he was using that deliberately in a vague sense—not directly using it, but allowing the Iranians to read that in his speech.

JAY: It echoes something that I think, Leila, that Petraeus and Crocker said when they testified in Congress that I think most of the media didn’t pick up on. We did a story called “Did Petraeus split with the neocons?” around that time, because when Petraeus and Crocker spoke, they actually talked in that language, that there is a lot of mutual interest with Iran in Iraq and we should kind of figure out where that mutual interest was, and I think they actually picked up on the Iranian brokering of the peace agreement in Basra, which, I also should say, Leila Fadel and the McClatchy bureau were the ones that broke that story and did the story of Iran’s role in Basra, and almost nobody else in mass media even touched the story. So, I mean, I’ve told you this off camera, but, Leila, I think everybody owes you something for that. But what do you think in terms of this, how Iranians are going to hear this speech?

FADEL: Well, I think from the beginning, when Obama was elected, Iran sees this as a possible new relationship with the United States. It won’t be a black-or-white relationship any longer. And in this speech he talks about mutual respect, mutual understanding: if you unclench your fist, we’ll put our hand out. And that’s very important for Iran. And, again, the foreign minister in Iran today talked about Obama needing to fulfill the campaign promises of talking. And so that’s a very important change when it comes to dealing with issues that we’ve been dealing with for the past eight years. And when you talk about this idea, I mean, you don’t see any reference to the war on terror. A nation at war? Yes. [inaudible]

JAY: We had something close to “the war on terror.”

FADEL: Where is it?

JAY: There was a line which goes like this.

FADEL: The strongest thing I see is, “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken—you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” And that, I think, [inaudible]

JAY: Okay. There’s another one. There’s another one. We’re going to trade Obama sentences here. Okay. Dueling Obama sentences. “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” Now, I have to say that is something that isn’t calling—. Like, terrorism is a tactic. So when you just yell about terrorism, it’s actually ridiculous. To say “a far-reaching network” actually is something more specific. If what he’s talking about is al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda network, as opposed to something like a Hezbollah or a Hamas, that’s one thing. But if he’s using “far-reaching network” as just another way of saying “terrorism,” and if in fact he includes Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda, and Taliban, and lump them all in one big bucket, then he’s right back in the same place Bush was. And I actually don’t know from that what it is.

FADEL: Exactly. We don’t know. And I think it’s written like that on purpose. I don’t think right now he’s going to declare who is conciliatory, who is somebody who can come into the fold, and who is not. And you don’t see anywhere in this speech the catchphrases of the war on terror—”the war on terror,” “al-Qaeda,” “we’re going to smoke them out,” “us against them,” “freedom will prevail.” I mean, those things I’m not seeing. That sentence I just read to you I think is the closest thing to fighting words, to “we will defeat you,” that “our way of life is good,” that type of thing. But in general I think there is a lot of difference; be it subtle, but there is difference. He’s not naming. He’s not calling anybody out. The only named nations here are the ones that we’re directly involved in—Afghanistan and Iraq. And, even those, it’s very vague, what it means to “responsibly” pull out of Iraq; it’s very vague, what it means to get a “hard-earned peace in Afghanistan” when you’re putting more troops in. So, to be honest, the entire speech is quite vague about what he’s going to do on the foreign side of things.

JAY: Well, there’s been a critique of now-president Obama for quite some time that his speeches and positions are vessels within which many people can read what they want. But, at any rate, he’s now going to speak by actions. It’s no longer campaign mode. We’re going to judge him by real policy and real actions. And while we’re here, for those of you who are new to The Real News Network, let me explain that we don’t have any advertising, you’ll notice, on our broadcast. We don’t take any government funding. We don’t take any corporate underwriting, which you might see at the beginning of all the PBS kind of programming, where somebody comes on from an oil company or a pharmaceutical company and says in a very gentle voice how they support this programming. We don’t have that kind of interference in our editorial. But that means we need your donations. And so, hopefully, somewhere, if you’re on The Real News Web site, you’ll see a “donate” button. If you’re on the McClatchy Web site, you might want to later in the day visit, where you will find a “donate” button and you’ll be able to see more of this kind of coverage. So please join us in another very short break, just a minute or two. We’ll be right back.


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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Leila Fadel is the chief of the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She has covered the war in Iraq for Knight Ridder and now McClatchy on and off since June 2005, as well as the 34-day war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006. She has lived in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and speaks conversational Arabic. Her Iraq reporting won her Print Journalist of the Year honors from the Houston Press Club.

Gareth Porter is an historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.

Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.