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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009

Opening gestures show Obama's optimism


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Saying the right thing is not quite the same, to be sure, as doing the right thing, especially when you're the president of the United States. But it is much better than saying the wrong thing and then actually going on to do the wrong thing. We don't have to go back very far in U.S. history for a striking example of this potently negative one-two-punch.

But to what extent do words always prefigure action? That's the big question with this current president. So far, he hasn't done much, so he hasn't messed up yet. Still, the new president is saying many right things these days, and saying them well.

He certainly got off to a great start in foreign relations by not only saying the right thing but articulating it in unprecedented venues. Imagine, for starters, the utter astonishment of the producers of al-Arabiya in Dubai when the White House called them with the proposal that they conduct the first-ever full TV interview with President Barack Hussein Obama.

The medium is the message, was the masterful old mantra of the late Canadian communications sociologist Marshall McLuhan: Merely choosing the Saudi-financed TV channel for the premiere, with its large Saudi Arabian audience, sent an unmistakable message even before the Arab commentators could decode the policy substance.

The Obama interview on al-Arabiya set a welcome tone. How much many of us in the U.S. have for years ached for an American president who would appear to be humble, who would seem to want to listen to the views of others, and who, though never negotiating out of fear, would never fear to negotiate.

Sure — if there is one international problem that will remain unsolved decades from now — it is probably the Middle East issue. Obama — as his supporters joke — may walk on water, but as far as the Middle East is concerned, it's unlikely he is going to be parting the sea over there. But an honest effort to help cool down the violence in the Middle East will be deeply appreciated not only by Arabs and Jews who are its future casualties, but by the important cluster of nations surrounding the festering sore.

Obama was so right to say to Arab TV: "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 Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan."

All the world's a stage these days, no matter what scene is playing upfront at the moment. Talking to people with respect — especially to those who disagree with us — is crucial if we want them to talk back to us honestly and maturely. And listening to others is absolutely vital if we want others to listen in return.

"My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy." It is every sane American's hope, of course, that Muslims reciprocate this feeling.

In "The Clash of Civilizations," the late Samuel Huntington posited a hateful global political world ever-on-edge from the constant grinding of tectonic plates of cultural animosity, if not venom. But toward the end of his life, this great Harvard political scientist came to agree that powerful and intelligent politics and diplomacy could vitiate the poison and reduce the probabilities of conflict.

That is the goal the world must seek. But it is unachievable if Islam is to the West as a flame is to gasoline. Taking the edge off the grind and despair and history is the statesman's job. So far the new American president is looking far more like the statesman than the arsonist; he seems far more the listener that the lecturer.

Even to the shrill top leadership of Iran, Obama is willing to say: "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

No way can this American president or any U.S. leader completely please by public statement, or with official action, all interested parties in the Middle East. But in extending a hand, Obama is making a measured wager on optimism. So he will put his hand out first — and who would not want to shake on that.

Veteran journalist and former UCLA professor Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist now writing a book on Asia and America. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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