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The National: The Conversation

Author: Marc Lynch
February 20, 2009


Marc Lynch, the co-director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications at George Washington University, writes that in order for Barack Obama to restore America's reputation in the Arab world, he will have to engage in a new approach to public diplomacy.

On January 27, Barack Obama chose the Saudi-backed Arabic television station Al Arabiya for his first official interview as president. Emphasising themes of mutual respect and the value of dialogue, Obama assured Arab viewers that "what you'll see is someone who's listening". This early outreach - and emphasis on listening - suggested a dramatic departure from George W Bush. But despite Obama's personal breakthrough, there are mounting challenges to improving American relations with the Arab world, and no clear solutions. When Obama's personal magic fades, how will the new administration's engagement with Arab and Muslim publics differ from the overwhelming failures of the Bush administration?

The question has never been more urgent. The Bush administration has left behind an American image in tatters. Public opinion surveys show catastrophic levels of hostility towards American foreign policy - and that anger may be spilling over into deeper negative judgements about America itself. American support for the Israeli attack on Gaza during the presidential transition poisoned the honeymoon for the new president, with many Arabs and Muslims who had been excited about Obama expressing outrage over his silence as the fighting raged. A recent poll, unsurprisingly, found that only 2.8 per cent of Palestinians - essentially zero, given the margin of error - approved of American policy during the recent war in Gaza.


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