For Barack Obama to go on Arabic language television to directly address the emerging Arab public sphere. America’s image problem in that problematic region needs to be tackled in two kinds of ways. On the one hand, there’s a need for substantive shifts in policy that narrow the gap between U.S. and Arab perspectives on what’s happening in the world and what the problems are. And then on the other hand, I think there’s a need for gestures that set a context of mutual respect in which disagreements about policy are seen as disagreements about policy rather than reflecting a deeper religio-cultural chasm.
This is mostly about the latter, and I think you see it succeeding to an extent in the tone of al-Arabiya’s writeup of what Obama said about Israel—it’s critical, but it doesn’t dominate the discussion and disagreement isn’t taken as vitiating everything else he says. That’s important. The rest, of course, comes down to policy. Closing Gitmo and moving to really bring an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq should do a lot on that front.