It’s time for Obama to talk to Al Jazeera

The president’s media policy is in need of serious revision, argues Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst.

Obama will be weakened if congress votes down intervention in Syria, writes Bishara [Reuters]

The news item this morning read as follows:

WASHINGTON, Sept 7 (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will give interviews on Monday to the three network news anchors, as well as to anchors from PBS, CNN, and Fox, more evidence of a “full court press” strategy ahead of pivotal congressional votes on military strikes in Syria. The interviews will be taped on Monday afternoon and will air during each network’s Monday evening news broadcast, the White House said.

President Obama’s attempt to reach out directly to the US public is understandable; a substantial majority of Americans oppose his decision to go to war with Syria.

Thankfully, the “commander-in-speech” isn’t only giving another sermon; he’s going out on a limb to actually answer questions from six different anchors about his decision to strike Syria.

This means that either the president is all too confident he can convince a reluctant public of his case for war, or his administration is alarmed about the prospects of a major setback in congress – and will do all it can to avoid a political embarrassment.

It’s ironic that Obama’s last-minute decision to go back to congress for authorisation – whether as a savvy political ploy or constitutional wakeup call – could end up hurting him, big-time.

Failure in congress would not only weaken the case for war; it could also compromise Obama’s heavy legislative agenda for the next three years.

Answering to the people

Regardless of whether his motives and objectives are cynical or honourable, President Obama is right to seek congressional consent in questions of war, especially a war not fought in self-defence.

The immediate consequences of a strike on Syria aside, Obama’s decision to bring congress into the decision-making process will have effects on future presidents’ decisions to involve the US in war.

That’s not to say congressional support would render any war legal or just according to international law. The case of congressional support for the disastrous 2003 Iraq war is a recent case in point.

It’s precisely because the 2003 war on Iraq proved to be a major calamity, based on false pretexts – claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda – that the American public is dismissive of another war in the Middle East.

So when President Obama tries to decouple Syria from Iraq in people’s minds, and then uses the same pretexts used by Bush to wage war, many Americans – and many more Arabs – detect little difference between his policies  and those of his predecessor.

Answering to the Arab people

Unlike the majority of Americans who think the Syrian problem doesn’t pose a national security risk and therefore doesn’t merit a military intervention, the majority of Arabs – including most Arab League members – see it as a terrible tragedy that poses a terrible threat to the security of their own nations – and which must end by all necessary means.

Alas, they aren’t capable of stopping the bleeding.

But many in “the Arab world”, including within those nations strongly opposed to the Syrian regime, are also deeply sceptical of the Obama administration. Arab and Muslim nations have heard numerous justifications for US intervention in their lands over the past several decades, but the result has been the same: increasing, not decreasing, instability and violence.

Only last week, as the US debated strikes on Syria, the Obama administration carried out more drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen – two sovereign nations that are not at war with the US.

Constantly at the receiving end of Washington’s power, Arabs are not convinced of the United States’ liberal humanitarian arguments for the use of military force. After all, hasn’t Washington remained largely indifferent to the killing of 100,000 Syrians, intervening only after its self-imposed “red line” was violated?

Nor have Arabs bought into the selective security arguments that are rife with double standards. Aiming at Syria’s chemical weapons use to deter Iran’s nuclear development while keeping silent about Israel’s nuclear weapons doesn’t bode well for its credibility in the region. Hasn’t the credibility-through-war argument been discredited at least since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

The Obama administration insists that its response is punitive, limited, proportional to the use of chemical weapons and is not meant to change regimes. But what are the guarantees this doesn’t lead to “mission creep”, or a prolonged and even regional war with “grave consequences”, to cite UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon?

You can be sure in this case, if – or when – Washington’s war goes wrong, it will be Arabs and Muslims who will perish in even greater numbers.

These are only a few of the issues and questions on the minds of people in the region that merit clarifications. But after two wars in a decade, the leaders of the United States cannot continue to talk at the Arab world – they need to engage Arabs as they do Americans – they need to speak with them. The same goes for mainstream media in the US, where Arab voices are nearly totally absent.

Indeed, considering Washington’s decisions in the past decade have had an arguably deeper impact in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Iowa and Montana, President Obama must answer to Arabs as he does to the American people, regarding future wars in Syria or elsewhere in their region.

And there’s only one major network that reaches the majority of Arabs and Muslims and others in the greater Middle East.

If President Obama reckons it’s important to speak to six US networks, then talking to Al Jazeera – Arabic and English channels – is paramount for any future action in Syria.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.