President Obama’s exclusive interview on the Arab television network al-Arabiya has been promoted as another indication of the new course in American diplomacy–of a radical break with the policies of the Bush administration. But how much of the substance of his message was really new? Certainly the format was old hat; President Bush appeared on al-Arabiya many times, as long ago as 2004. Even Laura Bush appeared on the network to discuss women’s issues.
A close examination of the al-Arabiya appearances of the two presidents shows more commonality than variance. For example, on the Palestinian issue, President Obama told the Arab world that there is the promise for progress but hard work will be required:
I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people, and that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table. And it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to take time. . . . But if we start the steady progress on these issues, I’m absolutely confident that the United States–working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region–I’m absolutely certain that we can make significant progress.
President Bush speaking in January 2005 gave a similar, even more upbeat assessment:
I’m very optimistic because I believe that most Israelis do understand that in the long term their survival depends upon a democratic state coexisting peacefully with Israel. And I’m very optimistic because I believe the world now sees an opportunity to come together to help the process forward.
Obama is optimistic about the possibility for a two-state solution:
I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side. 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.
As was President Bush on al-Arabiya in May 2004:
I stood up in front of the world and said that the Palestinian people ought to have their own state. I’m the first President to have ever said that. And my assurance is, is that I have not changed my vision of two states living side-by-side in peace. . . . [M]y commitment to the Palestinian people is, when peaceful leaders emerge, when people are willing to fight off terror, they will have a great opportunity to see this state emerge. And America will help.
In President Obama’s vision of the future Palestinian state, economic development will play a major role:
I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state–I’m not going to put a time frame on it–that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life. . . . 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.
So too in the Bush vision:
In order for the Palestinian economy to grow, there needs to be–there needs to be crossings in–yes, in northern Gaza, in Israel, so people can go and work and come back and bring enterprise. Israeli capital needs to take a look at enterprise zones within the Gaza so that there’s a chance for people to find work. Foreign capital needs to be encouraged to go into Gaza so that the–so that good Palestinians can work. . . . The Palestinians are good businesspeople. And they want to be free. And they’re peaceful, they really are peaceful.
On U.S. relations with the broader Islamic world, Obama drew clear lines between the radicals and the general Muslim community, and stated, regarding the terrorists: “Their ideas are bankrupt. There’s no actions that they’ve taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them. . . . And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction.”
This of course is no different from the line that George Bush used throughout his presidency. He told al-Arabiya in October 2005 that the terrorists “have hijacked a great religion. Islam is peace–it’s not war, it’s not killing innocent children and innocent women. . . . They don’t have a philosophy. People don’t say, gosh, I want to follow them because there’s such a better tomorrow. And the only weapon they’ve got is to kill innocent people.”