This week, President Obama gave his first formal interview as commander in chief to Al Arabiya's Washington bureau chief, Hisham Melham, and the Muslim world watched. Melham says the massive outpouring of reaction to the interview surprised even him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Monday, President Obama gave his first formal interview as Commander-in-Chief to the Dubai-based Al-Jazeera competitor, al-Arabiya.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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 language of respect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the 17-minute discussion, Obama also addressed the future of Israel and Palestine, a nuclear-armed Iran and the demonization of America in the Middle East. Reactions reverberated around the world to the first presidential interview, but we were curious about the reaction of the interviewer, al-Arabiya’s Washington Bureau Chief Hisham Melham. He didn't know he’d be interviewing the President at 5 p.m. on Monday until 9 a.m. that morning. And when he found out, well, he felt kind of -
HISHAM MELHAM: Lucky, ecstatic, exhilarated, under pressure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you feel ready?
HISHAM MELHAM: Oh, you know, you’re always ready because I've been mentally ready for this since the moment he announced that he’s going to address the Muslim world from the heart of a Muslim capital within the first hundred days. At that time I began to mobilize my friends, people who knew him, worked with him, urging them, arm-twisting them, telling them to say, you know, good thing about me.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] But I never thought that he will give it to us that early. So on Monday, when someone from the National Security Council said, I'm going to either make your day or ruin your day.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Don't tell this to anybody except your people in Dubai - the President would like to see you at 5 o'clock this afternoon. And I laughed. I was just [LAUGHS] – I said, we have a full schedule, but I think I can accommodate the President. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So you think it was the recommendations that did it - certainly not just that.
HISHAM MELHAM: Look, I landed the first interview with George Bush for an Arab network, so maybe [LAUGHS] it’s bipartisan, I don't know. And maybe I'm too old and I'm known here, or maybe because they think that my channel is credible or they think I am credible. I would like to think that, obviously.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, on al-Arabiya’s website it says the channel is broadcast to an estimated 130 million Arab-speaking people around the world. With that kind of reach, did you feel a particular kind of pressure to represent a wide variety of people and passions and political priorities?
HISHAM MELHAM: Yes, I felt pressure. We are talking about the United States having serious problems in the Muslim world. You have two raging wars, costly, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. You have disillusionment on both sides. You have the legacy of the last eight years, not to talk about the legacy of the last sixty years. And it is extremely important for me to ask the right questions, and it’s extremely important for the President, I felt, for him to say the right things. There are lives at stakes here. We are not talking about something theoretical. So definitely, I mean, if you take your job seriously, when you’re given a chance like this, there’s something wrong with you if you don't feel a sense of anticipation and strain, really. And the reaction, I've never seen anything like it. I mean, it’s kind of embarrassing because I was, I was involved in it and I don't want to sound too corny about this, but I, I expected there will be positive reaction. I, I expected that it will be quoted left and right. But I really did not expect that kind of an overwhelming, almost universal reaction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the one thing that seemed to come up most often? What struck your viewers most?
HISHAM MELHAM: His authenticity. Average Arabs and Muslims felt, even when they listened or watched the President speaking to them in Arabic translation, they felt that he has the honesty in his tone. And I think he clinched it when he said, I have some members of my family who are Muslims. And the way he approached the Muslim world, the language that he used - he’s extremely aware of the meaning of words. And I think he was effective in reaching out and enforcing even the cynics in the Arab world and the Muslim world to listen to him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So was it more a question of his demeanor than any policy statements he made?
HISHAM MELHAM: Policy is framed with language. If you look carefully, if you parse his words when he talks about the war on terror, he doesn't talk about it in generalizations. He focuses essentially on the real enemy of the United States, which is al Qaeda organization and its affiliated groups. The problem with the President Bush was that he would lump al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, all sorts of Islamist groups together, and he muddled the issue. Conceptually, he muddled the issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it’s funny, when we spoke to you back in 2005, you talked about the stunning irrelevance of Alhurra, which was the Arabic-language channel funded by the U.S., based in Virginia, that’s broadcast throughout the Middle East, part of the Bush Administration’s “hearts and minds” effort. And judging from what you said back then, when we talk about hearts and minds, you say no campaign will work unless it’s actually backed by changes in policy, or at least policy that matches the positive rhetoric. You don't think that Obama can win this battle for hearts and minds with rhetoric, right, not even if he does a hundred interviews on al-Arabiya?
HISHAM MELHAM: Images, perceptions are shaped by policies. There was a time when the United States was held in high esteem in the Arab and the Muslim world, for a variety of reasons. One of them was America, the educator that built the American University in Beirut in 1865, later on the American University in Cairo. You have the America of President Wilson and his declarations about the people who were colonized by the Europeans. You have the America that opened up its shores to immigrants from what is today Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. And then beyond that, the most important thing about America in the collective minds of Arabs and Muslims was this is the major Western power without a colonial legacy in the Middle East. That’s why people looked up to the United States before. Perceptions change. They are not etched in stone, and that’s the beauty of it. I think President Obama understands this. Images and perceptions are related to policy. But also I would say, style and words do matter but they do matter up to a certain point. Fundamentally, as the President himself, as President Obama said, judge me by my actions, don't judge me by my words.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you find it hard to be objective about Barack Obama?
HISHAM MELHAM: Uh - somewhat. When I covered him during the elections, of course, you try to be as dispassionate as possible. But I always remember what one of my favorite philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche said: You cannot be – you cannot be totally impartial in a world where you live in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
HISHAM MELHAM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hisham Melham is the Washington Bureau Chief for al-Arabiya.