The New York Times, June 3, 2009
During a telephone interview Tuesday with President Obama about his speech to Arabs and Muslims in Cairo on Thursday, I got to tell the president my favorite Middle East joke. It gave him a good laugh. It goes like this:
There is this very pious Jew named Goldberg who always dreamed of winning the lottery. Every Sabbath, he’d go to synagogue and pray: “God, I have been such a pious Jew all my life. What would be so bad if I won the lottery?” But the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn’t win. Week after week, Goldberg would pray to win the lottery, but the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn’t win. Finally, one Sabbath, Goldberg wails to the heavens and says: “God, I have been so pious for so long, what do I have to do to win the lottery?”
And the heavens parted and the voice of God came down: “Goldberg, give me a chance! Buy a ticket!”
I told the president that joke because in reading the Arab and Israeli press this week, everyone seemed to be telling him what he needed to do and say in Cairo, but nobody was indicating how they were going to step up and do something different. Everyone wants peace, but nobody wants to buy a ticket.
“We have a joke around the White House,” the president said. “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.”
A key part of his message, he said, will be: “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.” He then explained: “There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it.” There are a lot of Israelis, “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”
There are a lot of Palestinians who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not delivered a single “benefit to their people and had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground” they would be much better off today — but they won’t say it aloud.
“There are a lot of Arab states that have not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery,” and when it comes to “ponying up” money to actually help the Palestinian people, they are “not forthcoming.”
When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people.”
It was clear from the 20-minute conversation that the president has no illusions that one speech will make lambs lie down with lions. Rather, he sees it as part of his broader diplomatic approach that says: If you go right into peoples’ living rooms, don’t be afraid to hold up a mirror to everything they are doing, but also engage them in a way that says ‘I know and respect who you are.’ You end up — if nothing else — creating a little more space for U.S. diplomacy. And you never know when that can help.
“As somebody who ordered an additional 17,000 troops into Afghanistan,” said Mr. Obama, “you would be hard pressed to suggest that what we are doing is not backed up by hard power. I discount a lot of that criticism. What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us.”
Similarly, the president said that if he is asking German or French leaders to help more in Afghanistan or Pakistan, “it doesn’t hurt if I have credibility with the German and French people. They will still be constrained with budgets and internal politics, but it makes it easier.”
Part of America’s “battle against terrorist extremists involves changing the hearts and minds of the people they recruit from,” he added. “And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter.”
I think that’s right. An Egyptian friend remarked to me: Do not underestimate what seeds can get planted when American leaders don’t just propagate their values, but visibly live them. Mr. Obama will be speaking at Cairo University. When young Arabs and Muslims see an American president who looks like them, has a name like theirs, has Muslims in his family and comes into their world and speaks the truth, it will be empowering and disturbing at the same time. People will be asking: “Why is this guy who looks like everyone on the street here the head of the free world and we can’t even touch freedom?” You never know where that goes.