CNN's Zakaria Praises Obama's Middle East Speech on CNN; No Mention of His Face-to-Face Meetings With President

Update below the break: Although Zakaria said he would be "surprised" if any Israelis objected to Obama's "quite even-handed" call for pre-1967 borders between Israel and Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed clear disapproval of the idea Thursday.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria appeared three times on Newsroom Thursday to preview and evaluate President Obama's speech on the Middle East – but never revealed that he has recently had face-to-face meetings with the president on foreign policy matters.

Last weekend a comment by CNN prime time host Eliot Spitzer revealed that Zakaria was advising the president on foreign policy matters, but Zakaria later dismissed that observation and said he simply had off-the-record conversations with Obama on foreign issues. However, he still did not disclose that information when he evaluated Obama's foreign policy speech Thursday on CNN.

 

Zakaria positively described Obama as "educator-in-chief" on the Middle East worldview and graded the speech as "good" and a "comprehensive speech." He thought Obama could have been tougher on Syria's regime in calling for them to step down.

Zakaria's story of his meetings with Obama was picked up on by multiple news outlets last weekend and became a topic of discussion on his journalistic credibility. First, a New York Times article touted that Obama had "sounded out" prominent journalists like Zakaria "regarding their visits to the [Middle East]."

CNN's Eliot Spitzer referred to the article Thursday May 12 on his show In the Arena, while interviewing Zakaria, and bragged that his colleague was advising Obama on foreign policy. Zakaria did not deny that he was advising the president, and clarified that the meetings were face-to-face and on matters of foreign policy.

After several internet outlets reported that Zakaria was advising the president, Zakaria posted on his website Saturday that those reports were "inaccurate" and that he simply had some "off-the-record" conversations with the president, who had never asked him for advice.

Wrote NewsBusters' Brent Baker of lingering doubts about the matter: "Doubts indeed when the host of a CNN show is discussing with the President the very policies that journalist later assesses on his foreign policy-oriented show."

A transcript of Zakaria's evaluation of the president's speech, which aired on May 19 at 1:00 p.m. EDT, is as follows:

HALA GORANI, CNN international anchor: What did you make of the speech by the president, Fareed, today? It was really a sweeping look at the region, though some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, were not mentioned.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN correspondent: Hala, exactly. It was his role as educator-in-chief that came out today. He provided a kind of worldview, almost a historical interpretation of the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring. He began in the beginning with Tunisia, and moved forward. And he tried to present a way in which he saw America's interests and values as squarely aligned with this Arab revolution.

He touched on the places we don't like, the regimes we don't like, about having trouble dealing with people in power – Tehran, Damascus, he also talked about Bahrain and Yemen. But you're right, of course, he didn't talk about the 800 pound goarilla that is Saudi Arabia. But he also then went on to talk about ways to consolidate these revolutions. He talked about the Arab-Israeli peace process. He was tougher on Syria than he's been. He was explicit in his support for two states, Israel and Palestine on 1967 borders, plus mutually-agreeable land slots. So very comprehensive. I have a feeling, though, that while he will be well-received in the region, there is an urgency here, to questions about whether these revolutions are going to go awry or whether they're going to be consolidated. I mean, here in Egypt there is great concern that having done this extraordinary revolution, they are still living under a military dictatorship that arrests its people, engages in military trials, torture, tear gas – and so I think they will be looking for that follow-through, the actions that America's diplomats, ambassadors, and perhaps the Secretary of State do. It was a good speech, but I think many Egyptians think right now they need a little more force than just a speech.

WOLF BLITZER: And Fareed, it was interesting. It almost seemed like the Obama doctrine is like "let's deal with this on a case-by-case basis, country to country," and essentially putting the responsibility, the  onus on the people there, saying that they had gotten done more in six months than the terrorists had gotten done in decades. Do you think that the people there, in the Arab world and the Middle East, that they wanted to hear more from this president in terms of concrete ideals and solutions to move their democracies or their revolutions forward?

(...)

WOLF BLITZER: Fareed, it's Wolf in Washington. I just want to get your reaction to what he said about President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. He was pretty tough. He said Assad can lead that transition to democracy, if you will, or get out of the way. I think there are very few observers who believe he will actually lead a transition to democracy. But the president stopped short of saying that Bashar al-Assad must do what Mubarak in Egypt did, or Khadafi in Libya is supposed to do, namely leave. What do you think of the way the president finessed the words on Syria?

ZAKARIA: Wolf, that is the one part of the speech that I was a little puzzled by, because I think that we are clearly moving in the direction of – and when I say "we," I mean U.S. foreign policy – of calling for regime change in Syria. I'm not sure why we're phasing it out over several weeks, because as you say there is almost no prospect that Assad will be part of a democratic transition. The Syrian regime is a minority regime, an Allawad regime rules over a majority that really do not want to be ruled by this tiny minority that they by the way regard mostly as heretics. And so this regime knows it has no place to go. It's not going to compromise, so in that case we are taking the position that there needs to be a democratic transition. The logical consequence for that is to ask for Assad's ouster, or at the very least to call on him to peacefully step down. And I understand concerns about stability, but we're going there anyway. And it struck me that the president could have gone. He went one shade further than he's gone, I think he could have gone a couple of shades more.  

BLITZER: Was there anything else that you thought was thunderously missing besides his avoiding any direct reference to Saudi Arabia, stopping short of calling Bashar al-Assad to step down? Was there anything else you wanted to hear, Fareed?

ZAKARIA: No, I thought it was a comprehensive speech. I, by the way, understand why he didn't bring up Saudi Arabia. It is the most awkward case where our short-term interests are not compatible with our long-term values. He highlighted the fact that there would be such occasions, he didn't point out that this was the specific one. If there were instability in Saudi Arabia, you are looking at $250-a-barrel oil, and that would potentially plunge the entire Western world, perhaps the entire world, into another recession. So I think there are good reasons to be somewhat cautious about change in Saudi Arabia.

I think that he was also – he also gave a speech that I would be surprised if anyone in Israel would object to, because he was very clear that Israel's legitimate security interests have to be taken care of. He was very clear on the fact that Hamas could not be negotiated with as long as it refused to recognize Israel and call for its destruction. I think that there are many of those key issues that Israelis were worried that he would either ignore or half-state, he stated pretty fully. So I think that he was quite even-handed while calling for a Palestinian state on '67 borders, plus-or-minus land slots. He also recognizes Israel's legitimate security needs.

***** UPDATE (May 20, 11:08 a.m. EDT):

In his Thursday Middle East speech, President Obama referred to the present relations between Israel and Palestine as "unsustainable," calling for two separate nation-states with Israel reverting to its 1967 borders. In response to the call, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahyu issued a terse disapproval and claimed that the 1967 borders are "indefensible," essentially telling Obama to take his words back and honor the 2004 U.S. commitments to Israel.

"Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state," the prime minister's official response read. "That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both houses of Congress."

"Among other things," the prime minister added, "those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines."

 

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014