|Martin Indyk speaks to attendees of the Brookings Doha Center event as Hady Amr looks on.
On February 2, 2009, The Brookings Doha Center (BDC), a Project of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, hosted its second videoconference, bringing together Ambassador Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center, via live feed from Washington and Hady Amr, Director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. The discussion, entitled, “President Obama in the Middle East,” focused on the key players and policies of the new Obama administration and what changes this would likely mean for the relationship between the United States and the Middle East. Both speakers offered their thoughts before taking questions from audience members.
Amr, who had just returned from attending the inauguration ceremony in Washington, welcomed everyone by expressing his view that the efforts of the Obama administration to reach out to Arab and Muslim communities, even in the earliest stage of the presidency have been highly effective. Amr was not only impressed with President Obama’s words to Muslims in his inaugural address and his embracing of his own Muslim ties, but also encouraged by how quickly these words have been turned into decisive action in the past few weeks. By signing an executive order to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, appointing Arab-American George Mitchell as the new Middle East peace envoy, and giving his first interview to an Arab satellite news channel, President Obama has made clear his intentions to repair the damaged relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
Ambassador Indyk was similarly optimistic about the steps that President Obama has already taken to refocus efforts towards effective American foreign policy in the region. Most importantly, he said that the appointment of George Mitchell indicated that “the peace process is back,” and that the new administration has a real recommitment to the cause. Ambassador Indyk said that Mitchell, who is respected for his work on the Northern Ireland peace accords, has a reputation for making detailed plans based on first-hand observations and then giving fair-minded suggestions. Ambassador Indyk was also hopeful about the rest of Obama’s foreign policy team. He praised the appointments of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a “strong and experienced” person and National Security Advisor Jim Jones, a former Marine Corps general with familiarity with security issues in the Palestinian territories.
As for changes in policy, Ambassador Indyk said that he expects a clear recommitment to sustained diplomatic engagement in the region, or a “new diplomatic offensive.” He expects this will include efforts to navigate a final Israeli-Palestinian peace, start direct negotiations between Israel and Syria, reach out to the government of Iran, and withdraw responsibly from Iraq over the next two years.
Following the remarks of the two speakers was a comprehensive question and answer session, during which participants inquired about topics ranging from democracy in the region to a nuclear Iran to the recent war on Gaza. Ambassador Indyk made clear that while the new administration has already stated some of its goals, official policy positions have not yet been finalized as it is still very early in the presidency. The situation in Gaza seemed to be of particular interest to the participants and the speakers fielded several questions regarding Obama’s policy towards Palestinians and the way the U.S. intends to deal with hardened attitudes towards Israel in the Arab world. Ambassador Indyk said he hoped that Obama’s demonstrated “desire to listen” and “sensitivity” along with his personal ability to communicate will regenerate hope of a real solution that is acceptable to all parties.