CAIRO: President Barack Obama outlined his vision for US relations with the Middle East in an interview with BBC s North America editor, on the eve of his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia and Cairo.
Obama told BBC s Justin Webb that he sought for the United States to become a role model, but cautioned against imposing its values.
The danger I think is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture, he said.
Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion – those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity.
But while acknowledging that there are obviously issues of human rights in the Middle East, the President avoided specifics that many Egyptians may have been looking for.
He said President Hosni Mubarak was a force for stability, without commenting on the President s domestic policies. He has been a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States. He has sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region.
The counterparts will meet in private for the first time during Obama s visit to Cairo.
When Webb asked whether he considered Mubarak to be authoritarian, Obama deferred. I tend not to use labels for folks, he said.
Hossam El-Hamalawy, activist and blogger at arabawy.net, said he felt that Obama was not going far enough. He said that Obama’s silence regarding Mubarak was a “clear endorsement of his regime.
“The pro-democracy movement here has allies in the west, but they are not in the Whitehouse, El-Hamalawy said. Despite Obama’s differences from the past, El-Hamalawy was not confident that he will be fundamentally different from his predecessor.
AUC Political Science Professor Walid Kazziha said Obama’s reluctance to emphasize a purely pro-democracy policy was understandable. “He’s not going to raise that issue against any Arab regime that he considers to be moderate, said Kazziha. “They’re opting for stability rather than democracy.
“In actual policy terms, he’s not going to lock horns with the Arab regime he needs, Kazziha said, citing America’s need for Egyptian support in disengaging from Iraq and in reaching a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kazziha said he supported Obama’s restraint in light of what he considered more important issues. “I’m more for a resolution of the conflict with Israel before we tackle domestic issues, he said.
Indeed, much of the BBC interview focused on Obama s plans for dealing with the situations in Palestine as well as in Iran. Obama said he planned to get serious negotiations back on track between Israel and the Palestinians.
He explained that it was in America s interest to achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as in the interest of both of those peoples.
Not only is it in the interest of the Palestinian people to have a state, it s in the interest of the Israeli people to stabilize the situation there, he said.
He said he will continue to push Israelis to put an end to expanding Jewish settlements. Diplomacy is always a matter of a long hard slog. It s never a matter of quick results, he said.
Though he has yet to see major policy change, AUC Political Science Professor Kazziha said he believes Obama’s rhetoric and future plans have made a difference. “He has shifted the mood from looking at America as being antagonistic towards Arabs and Muslims to one where people are willing to give it a chance, Kazziha said.
Obama also advocated for strengthening diplomatic ties with Iran. What I have said is that it is in the world s interests for Iran to set aside ambitions for a nuclear weapon, he said, adding that he would achieve such a goal through tough direct diplomacy .
According to Webb, the President sat down with BBC because he wanted to reach out to regions of the world that American media does not reach.
But he made clear that the interview was not an apology for past actions under the Bush administration.