Was Obama's Interviewer the Arab Chris Matthews?

Did interviewer Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya TV offer Barack Obama the Arab version of "Hardball with Chris Matthews"? After the interview was finished, Melhem talked to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic and crowed about how superior Obama is to George Bush:

A president named Barack Hussein Obama sees the world differently from a president named George W. Bush, in part because of his biography, in part because of intellect. He senses that maybe America is less Western-centric than it used to be. The world is no longer Europe and North America.

Can you construct a sillier straw man than to suggest George Bush doesn’t realize the West needs to engage the Arab world? Goldberg tried to suggest skepticism, that Obama’s Middle East policy resembles Bush’s in some ways, but Melhem wouldn’t agree, boastfully selling the current Obama line that he’s too progressive and Muslim-friendly to be pushed into a Bush mold:

Look, in the long run, he is telling the Muslim world that it's going to have a difficult time demonizing him. He's saying, "I'm willing to disagree with the people of the Muslim world respectfully." He was miffed and angry by Zawahiri and Bin Laden, the way they speak of him. And he jumped on it and dealt with it. There's a subtle shift here on how he looks at the war on al-Qaeda and the groups that collaborate with it. He doesn't put Hamas and Hezbollah in the same category as al-Qaeda. Is there going to be disappointment later? We're bound to have disappointments, but the main message is that a new wind is blowing. He's closing down Guantanamo, sending Mitchell, pulling out of Iraq, and maybe I'm dreaming but I hope he would show Palestinians and Israelis tough love, both of them. Do you want to tell me that Bin Laden and all these nuts are not going to be nervous about him?

A few passages of Melhem’s interview transcript underline how he tried to help Obama define himself as a nightmare for al-Qaeda and a headache for America-haters:

MELHEM: Let me take a broader look at the whole region. You are planning to address the Muslim world in your first 100 days from a Muslim capital. And everybody is speculating about the capital. (Laughter.) If you have anything further, that would be great. How concerned are you -- because, let me tell you, honestly, when I see certain things about America -- in some parts, I don't want to exaggerate -- there is a demonization of America.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

MELHEM: It's become like a new religion, and like a new religion it has new converts -- like a new religion has its own high priests.

OBAMA: Right.

MELHEM: It's only a religious text.

OBAMA: Right.

MELHEM: And in the last -- since 9/11 and because of Iraq, that alienation is wider between the Americans and -- and in generations past, the United States was held high. It was the only Western power with no colonial legacy.

OBAMA: Right.

MELHEM: How concerned are you and -- because people sense that you have a different political discourse. And I think, judging by (inaudible) and Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden and all these, you know -- a chorus --

OBAMA: Yes, I noticed this. They seem nervous.

MELHEM: They seem very nervous, exactly. Now, tell me why they should be more nervous?

OBAMA: Well, I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they've been using against me before I even took office --

MELHEM: I know, I know.

OBAMA: -- what that tells me is that 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.

In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed. And what they've been doing is destroying things. And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction.

Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.

MELHEM, helpfully: The largest one.

OBAMA: The largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith -- and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers -- regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.

And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.

But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world -- but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well.

A few minutes later, Melhem praised Obama for abandoning Bush’s "war on terror" or Islamo-fascist framing and lingo:

MELHEM: President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, "war on terror," and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people -- Islamic fascism. You've always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators. And is this one way of --

OBAMA: I think that you're making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.

And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda -- that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it -- and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down.

But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.

Time magazine reported that Melhem was hoping to get an interview with George Mitchell, but Team Obama decided to send the Big Guy, and Melhem noted his wife and daughter enthusiastically supported his campaign (as if this man did not?):

Melhem says Obama put him at ease and the two schmoozed for awhile before getting down to the questions. After telling the President that his wife and daughter were enthusiastic supporters of Obama's campaign, the President took some White House stationery and jotted nice notes to them. When Melhem mentioned that he shared Obama's love of Chicago Blues music, the President beamed with satisfaction as White House aides tapped their feet impatiently. "There we were, two Blues fanatics, sitting there talking about Muddy Waters," Melhem says.

Melhem, long a vocal critic of U.S. Middle East policy, says that he was touched by Obama's conciliatory tone and references to his Muslim roots. "You can feel the authenticity about him," he says. "The interview was his way of saying, 'There is a new wind coming from Washington.' Barack Obama definitely sees the world differently from a man named George W. Bush."

It's no surprise that Time added that Obama told the Arab version of Chris Tingle it would not be his last chance to interview Obama: "There will be more," he promised.

[Photo from NewsHour on PBS]

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis