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Deciphering Obama’s message to the Middle East

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

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Story Transcript

What will Obama do in Iraq? Pt. 1

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. This is The Real News Network. And a few minutes ago, you saw President Bush in his helicopter, flying and leaving the stage of history, that is, unless someone actually does charge him with war crimes or some other criminal offense, which I guess is a little unlikely, and we’ll be discussing that later today and tomorrow. You also saw, of course, the historic moment of the inauguration of Barack Obama, (need I say?) first African-American president of the United States, who delivered his long-awaited inauguration speech. And to discuss their reactions to the speech, and for me to ask questions that probably will give some hint of my reactions to the speech, I’m first of all joined by Leila Fadel in Baghdad. Leila is the bureau chief in Baghdad for McClatchy Newspapers, and, in the studio, Gareth Porter, who is investigative historian and journalist and a frequent commentator on The Real News Network. Thank you both for joining us.

LEILA FADEL, BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Thank you.

JAY: Leila, I’m going to start with you. First of all, as someone who grew up with one foot in the United States and one foot in the Middle East, how did you react, just emotionally, to the speech? And then we’ll kind of dig in more into the substance.

FADEL: Well, as you know, as journalists we don’t have opinions.

JAY: That’s true. You don’t have emotions.

FADEL: We don’t have emotions.

JAY: If you had emotions, Leila, how would you have reacted? And, as we know, as a journalist, you can’t [inaudible]

FADEL: Well, you know, I mean, of course, you know, I’m a daughter of an immigrant, and today a son of an immigrant became president; a man whose name isn’t typical, Barack Hussein Obama, is the president of the United States. It’s a great thing. It says something about the evolution of our nation and the fact that it shows, finally, a reflection of what our nation is made up of, which is people from all over. We are all immigrants to America. And so, of course, it’s a great emotional time for Americans.

JAY: Gareth, again, same question: just an emotional reaction, and then we’ll get into our analytical journalist heads.

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: Well, I think I’m having a similar problem, of course, actually reacting with emotion, because I’m so accustomed now to sifting out the emotional issues and really focusing on the analysis. But, you know, definitely you cannot help but be struck by the moments here of the black population of the United States really responding to the first black president. You saw a scene of John Lewis responding to his speech. And then, of course, Joseph Lowery giving the benediction. And, you know, I think that is, for me, the emotional highlight of this hour and this day.

JAY: I think there’ll be a lot of conversation on most of the news networks of whether the speech reached the ten-out-of-ten people wanted it to, and mostly, I think, emotionally. Instead, let’s dig a little more in substance. And as both of you are a little bit more involved in foreign policy, let’s talk about your own reaction, in terms of what, if anything, it tells us any more about the Obama foreign policy, his attitude towards the world, and a little bit about how you think people are going to hear this speech around the world. And, obviously, one of the most important places in terms of US foreign policy of how people will hear the speech is Iraq. So let’s start: how do you think people in Iraq are going to react to this speech?

FADEL: I’m going to be quite honest. I don’t think a lot of people in Iraq, regular Iraqis, sat glued to their televisions today to watch Barack Obama’s speech. When we were out today speaking to people, most of them said they didn’t care. They felt that US foreign policy in the Middle East and inside Iraq was set and it would be the same. The only thing that most people did speak about was that Barack Obama has been vocal about wanting to withdraw from Iraq, which he mentioned again in his speech today, responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. And that’s many Iraqis’ number one issue: they want American troops off Iraqi soil.

JAY: There was one phrase in the speech—I’ll read it to you. It said, "To leaders around the globe who sow conflict or blame their societies’ ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." I doubt he had Iraq in mind when he said that. I am expecting he’s talking about other Arab governments, maybe even some Latin American governments. But, still, how are people in Iraq going to take "don’t blame your ills on the West"?

FADEL: Well, I think in the Arab world as a whole, when you talk to Iraqis, they both identify as Iraqi as well as Arab. There is a lot of blame on the West for the current situation, both in Iraq and other Arab nations; either it be because they feel that their leaders, who they don’t think are good enough, are being propped up by the American administration of the past. Iraq has been affected and its fate has been intertwined with America for years now, longer than the war, because there were the sanctions, there was the 1991 Gulf War, there was the relationship between Saddam Hussein and America before they became enemies. And all of that they remember when they look at America, and they know that whatever Obama does in the next four years will affect them intimately and will decide their fate, ultimately.

JAY: Gareth, what’s your reaction in terms of what you think it tells us about the tone, at very least? I don’t think there’s anything new in terms of policy, ’cause he didn’t dig into anything. It’s more, really, a setting of tone.

PORTER: I think you’re right, Paul. It is a tone that was set in regard to foreign policy. And I have to say that I was struck, in both hearing it the first time and then reading the text, with the number of times in the speech that he really signaled, in terms of tone, an emphasis on restraint and humility—he actually used those terms in the speech, which is striking in itself. But on Iraq, on Afghanistan, you know, you don’t have a sort of assertion of determination to stay the course, you know, obviously not using those words, but even anything close to that; instead he talked about forging a peace in Afghanistan. That’s a rather striking term to use in the present circumstances, when, you know, we’ve just had a report that he’s about to approve a massive increase in US troop strength there. He didn’t use the word "Iran" at all in the speech, which is very interesting.

JAY: And he didn’t mention any country, I think, except Afghanistan.

PORTER: Well, except for—

JAY: Except Afghanistan. And Iraq.

PORTER: —except for Afghanistan and Iraq, yes. And the fact that he didn’t mention Iran by name and didn’t talk about approaching test of strength or wills or anything like that, I think, is also an important signal.

JAY: Leila, I was struck, I guess, that I think a lot with Obama is setting a feeling, setting a tone, and maybe you learn more from his objectives in that than you do in the actual words. If I had to put one word on this speech myself, I would call it—as, certainly, compared to the rhetoric we’ve heard for many years, I would call it modest, and it sets a kind of modest tone. What do you think? And how do you think people would react to that?

FADEL: I mean, I personally, reading this speech, I think he doesn’t name Iran. But I think in the line where he talks about extending a hand if you’re willing to unclench your fist, I think Iran will read that as speaking to them. Their foreign minister came out today and said that they expect Obama to fulfill his campaign promises in order to unfreeze ties between Iran and the United States, which has been a tumultuous relationship that has directly affected Iraq. And if that relationship can improve, maybe things can change here as well. But there’s also still, as there always seems to be, that idea that we will not apologize for our ways, that we will use, we will defend the way we are and our freedoms. And sometimes in the Muslim world, I think, that is perceived very hostilely, you know, as if coming at you and telling you, you know, we’re not going to say—I don’t know how to put this—"We’re not going to change anything about us. We expect you to change." But at the same [break in footage] we want to come towards the Muslim world with mutual respect, mutual interest, which is something I think people will appreciate.

JAY: But I would also say, Gareth, maybe, from my own opinion, I’m guessing how Muslims might react to this, how the Muslim world would react. Is that not a little too modest, in the sense that much of the Muslim world—and I don’t know if it should be called "Muslim world" or "Arab world"—I don’t know if there’s such a religious division. But, at any rate—.

FADEL: Well, the Muslim world is much larger than the Arab world.

JAY: Yeah, this is true. Feel that, I don’t know, just the words "mutual respect" are enough. And it wouldn’t surprise me. Perhaps he might have wanted to have said more. But he’s been vetting his foreign policy appointments through John McCain. He had an inaugural ball last night where John McCain was the guest of honor, and President Obama made a speech sort of lauding McCain. He met a few days ago with all of the cabal of right-wing commentators—William Kristol, and David Brooks, and George Will, and [Charles] Krauthammer was there. And so is there a bit? But can you be all things to all people, especially if "all people" include the neoconservatives who have been waging this last eight years’ foreign policy?

PORTER: Well, of course not. You’re either going to have to make decisions which are going to alienate some people and be more regarded as more favorable by others. I would personally not take too seriously sitting down for dinner with neoconservatives or conservatives.

JAY: It’s not the sitting down at dinner, let me say; it’s the report back from the neoconservatives, who came away rather happy with what they heard. I mean, I think you could have dinner with just about anybody on earth. [inaudible]

FADEL: Can I—

JAY: Yeah, go ahead Leila.

FADEL: —interrupt for a second?

JAY: Yeah, please do.

FADEL: I think that this speech is purposely vague, because, as Gareth was saying, you cannot be all things to all people. The thing on every person’s mind in the Middle East right now is what happened between Hamas and Israel in the last three weeks, and what was said in the speech was nothing. And that is the issue. When you went out today in Iraq, where there are American troops across the street, they didn’t talk about whether or not Americans will leave first; they talked about Gaza first, they talked about Palestinians first, they talked about 1,300 people dead. That’s what they talked about. And they said in the end they don’t care who comes into the White House, because the lobbyists control it. And his speech was vague for that reason. You can’t just—.

JAY: So we’re going to take a very short break, Leila, and we’re going to come back for another segment of our conversation. We’re going to pick it up right here. So please join us in literally about two minutes or a minute, when we’re going to come back and carry on the conversation. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network, and we will be right back.

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