In his first foreign interview, President Obama sat down with Al-Arabiya television and discussed his initial goals for American foreign policy, both in general and towards the Arab world in particular. As I read through the transcript (you can read it here) I was impressed by the words and the tone, but also by the similarities between what Obama is saying now and what I’ve been saying for years.

From my article Foreign Relations Roulette  (Feb. 27, 2005):

“To begin with, we should have a real heart to heart talk with our “allies.” We need to make clear, in no uncertain terms, that our goal is to help create a world that guarantees people the rights of freedom, the rights to have a representative government of their making, and a chance at prosperity as they define it. We, along with our other allies, should offer them all the technical, practical, educational, and financial assistance to help bring them up to developed standards. We should listen to their methods and ideas regarding “social growth” and incorporate them when practical. We need to be willing to share life-changing advances with other governments and ensure that they use this knowledge for their people. In exchange, we need to make clear what we expect from them in return: a quick transition towards a stable, elected representative government that provides for its people’s needs as defined by the people and an atmosphere of personal freedom and responsibility. And then, perhaps most importantly, we must lead by example. We must show our sincerity by including these countries and their people in the changes rather than just throwing money to American companies with a mandate to “fix the place.” We must clean up our act here at home and we must embrace actions that show the world that we are committed to world peace above capitalist profit.”


From the Interview

(On directions to Mid-East envoy George Mitchell)

“And so 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.”

(On the Israel-Palestine situation)

“I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These things are interrelated. And what I’ve said, and I think Hillary Clinton has expressed this in her confirmation, is that if we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.

And so what we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there’s a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs.

And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves? And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? And if we can keep our focus on making their lives better and look forward, and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past, then I think that we have an opportunity to make real progress.”

(On the Muslim world in general)

“In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you’ve built, not what you’ve destroyed. And what they’ve been doing is destroying things. And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction.

Now, 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. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”

And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.

And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I’m not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what’s on a television station in the Arab world — but I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity.

A New Trend?

If you can notice the trend in all of these statements, it is that America will do better with friends and foes alike if we listen to the positions of all sides before rushing to judgment. But further, he understands that people (or nations) cannot move forward unless they are willing to let go of the past, especially the past wrongs that have created generations of enmity.

Secondly, for too long, our foreign policy forays have been based on the “Lesser of Two Evils” policy.

Again, from my article The Lesser of Two Evils (Jan.3, 2006):

“For over 60 years, U.S. Foreign policy has been predicated upon a doctrine known as “the lesser of two evils.” In essence, this policy was used as rationale for engaging in alliances with foreign dictators whose disdain for democracy held their own countrymen in virtual bondage to their whims. These dictatorships were free to act as they pleased within their own countries without pressure from the U.S. government with regards to human rights and freedoms so long as they sided with the U.S. in international matters or engaged in capitalistic endeavors with our government and corporations. Despite a stated goal of promoting democracy and freedom across the world, successive U.S. administrations and Congresses have made pacts with tyrants who abhor individual freedoms and seek power and wealth at the expense of their countrymen.

The simple truth is that the lesser of two evils policy is a fallacy. By choosing this method of foreign relations, the U.S. has not endeared itself to the people of the world. Despite the charity of our individual citizens to poor or ravaged countries around the world, the reputation of America is based on the actions of our government. We tout our freedoms and democratic principals everywhere we go, so the people of the world can only assume that we not only approve of what our government does abroad, we dictate that policy ourselves. They may want to come here and share in that power, but that doesn’t mean they like us. By choosing the lesser of two evils, we’ve shown the world that our means justify any ends, especially if the ends means more money and leisure for us. This approach to foreign policy has made us many false allies and real enemies, and the fruition of this approach is coming home to roost in the form of terror attacks and nuclear proliferation. And while the worst tyrants operate abroad, it is we who let them. Who is worse: the man who kicks the puppy or the one who pays to watch?”

We can only hope now, as we watch the beginnings of a new approach to foreign relations by America, that the Obama administration not only understands these concepts but puts them to constructive practice around the world. Listen before you act. Act consistently to all. Do not support tyrants while espousing democracy. Follow these three ideals, Mr. President, and you’ll make great progress towards restoring our national reputation and perhaps even leave the world a better, safer place than when it was handed to you.

(cross posted at Bring It On!)