Waiting for Obama

Why hasn’t the US president sat down for an interview with a single Arab journalist since 2009?

It’s peculiar that the US president has more say about the death of an Arab than the life of an American, and yet despite all the Middle East turmoil, he has not sat down for an interview with an Arab journalist since 2009.

This is especially strange because President Obama did make the time – and the point – during his first week in office to sit down with a journalist from Al-Arabiya channel and promised “more to come”.

Alas, that turned out to be the last time he would grant a one-on-one interview with Arab journalists.

After his famous Cairo speech to the Muslim world a few months later, the president sat down with half a dozen journalists from Israel, Indonesia and the Arab world, but it lasted for no more than half an hour, because as he told his audience, he wanted to see the pyramids.

Over the last several weeks, I spoke to a dozen national and foreign Washington correspondents and a couple of former spokespersons to try and find out why the commander-in-speech had gone silent while his predecessor, George W Bush granted six interviews to just one Arab TV network.

Most were shocked but not surprised by the record, even though the Middle East, which comprises five percent of the world population, makes up perhaps as high as a third of its heated conflicts with a direct or indirect role for the US in most.

I was given all sorts of excuses: The White House grants interviews only when it suits the president’s agenda; or when he has a particular message to convey to a designated audience. And that he didn’t do much in the way of talking to the media anyway.

I was reminded that other members of the Obama administration did indeed grant interviews to Arab media; that President Obama has addressed the Arabs and notably the youth on a number of occasions. And besides, the Middle East is a terrible mess, as one recalled rather sardonically, why expect the president to want to say anything at all.

These might be rational explanations, but they’re not sufficient to explain why the president hasn’t been communicating with the Arab media during these dark and uncertain times. By that I don’t mean talking at the Arab and Muslim worlds from distant podiums, I mean talking to them and answering their questions.

Just this past week, the media witnessed a surge of Obama interviews from comedy to sports to Hispanic channels, but not to an outlet from the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Could this travesty of public diplomacy be explained by those perverse inversions of American politics? The bizarre dance, in which only the right dares to jump left and only the left dares to shuffle right. Bush could talk to the “A-rabs” without anyone doubting that he was a “bombs away”, “hang ’em high”, sorta guy. No matter how many drones Obama sends east, a large segment of the American public will consider him soft on killing, and if he’s seen talking to “them”, it would be more evidence of his secret Muslimness.

It also might be that if Obama does settle on an agenda it will blow up in his face. Unlike his predecessor, who seemed to become more certain the more reality revealed that he was wrong, Obama loses the courage of his convictions once they turn out to be embarrassing misjudgements, so he may have concluded that the less he says the better off he is.

Be that as it may, contrary to what I heard in the capital, the White House record shows that President Obama is anything but indifferent to the press. He did almost 800 sit-downs with journalists since taking office – many of these with foreign media and a few went beyond soft-balling the president.

But frankly speaking, and considering America’s heavy military and diplomatic involvement there, it’s unfair to compare the greater Middle East with any other region.

IN DEPTH: Watch Empire’s episode on the mystery of Obama and the media

As the Obama administration intensifies US air strike and deepens the US’ military involvement in the region, President Obama has a moral responsibility to talk to the nations at the receiving end of American power.

For example, as the commander-in-chief, Obama needs to clarify the objectives and duration of the ongoing US military operations in Syria and Iraq and the reasons why he secretly signed the order to expand American military operations in Afghanistan in 2015 to include fighting the Taliban.

Like many in the region, I am puzzled by the president’s claim that US foreign policy is driven by the principle “right makes might”, and I would love to hear a few answers regarding the specifics of how US military deployments square with his vision.

The president has rightly insisted on more than a few occasions that military solutions are not sufficient to deal with the threat of extremism and terrorism which implies, among other things, the need to win “hearts and minds”.

That requires direct communication with the most fragile and alienated elements of the Arab and Muslims societies that are prone to extremism.

If the president truly believes America is a force of good even when it acts poorly; that America’s objectives are to help the helpless minorities, to mediate peace, and to empower those who root for democratic and prosperous societies in Arab and Muslim lands, then all he needs to do is answer the questions on people’s minds.

Sound bites are no alternative to sound policies, but ending the radio silence and reaching out to the peoples of the region could at least answer the question about indifference.

Just days after his party lost the midterm elections, President Obama said: “There are times, there’s no doubt about it, where, you know I think we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we’re trying to do and why this is the right direction.”

Spot on. But, guess what? This lesson is as relevant in foreign affairs as it is in domestic affairs.

True, the Arabs don’t vote in the US elections, but the Middle East seems to have as much effect on the political mood in America as the Midwest.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and author of The Invisible Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara