President Obama chose an Arabic satellite TV network for his first formal television interview as president, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that "the Americans are not your enemy.
His remarks, broadcast Tuesday, signaled a shift -- in style and manner at least -- from the Bush administration, offering a dialogue with Iran and what he depicted as a new readiness to listen rather than dictate.
In a transcript published on Al-Arabiya's English language website, Obama said he believed "the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away" and that he had told his envoy to "start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating."
Looking to the future of U.S. ties
He spoke at length about the United States' future relationship with the Muslim world, saying his "job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives."
In contrast to the enthusiastic reception Obama's victory has garnered around the world, the Arab world has been much more cautious about the new U.S. president -- with most people skeptical that U.S. policy in the region will change.
Obama talked about growing up in Indonesia, the Muslim world's most populous nation, and noted that he has Muslim relatives. Obama's Kenyan father was born Muslim, though a self-described atheist, and many of his relatives in Kenya are practicing Muslims. As a child, Obama lived for a number of years in Indonesia while his mother as doing research there.
Obama spoke, too, about Iran. He criticized the country's threats against Israel and pursuit of nuclear weapons. But he said "it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress."
He repeated the U.S. commitment to Israel as an ally and to its right to defend itself. But he suggested that both Israel and the Palestinians have hard choices to make. "Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions," he said.
Reaction to interview is mixed
Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, an arm of the U.S. think-tank in the Qatari capital, described the decision to make the first presidential interview with an Arabic news network as "stunning."
"President Obama has made it absolutely clear ... that a central priority will be repairing America's relations with the Muslim world," he said. "If that's his objective, I'd say he's been hitting home run after home run."
Reaction to the interview, Obama's first with any foreign news outlet, was split.
"He's kind of hit the ground running," said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Even though we don't have a clue about the substance of what will happen, there is a change in mood and temperament. ... It will help defuse the tension in the Middle East, not only over how Arabs view the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but also between divisive Arab regional factions."
It seemed to soften the stance of Hamas, which had dismissed Obama as following the same policies as his predecessor. "In the last couple of days there have been a lot of statements [from Obama], some of them very positive, and choosing this George Mitchell as an envoy," said Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas official.
However, Hatem al-Kurdi, 35, a Gaza City engineer, said: "I can't be optimistic until I see something tangible."
Fawwaz Traboulsi, a columnist for the Lebanese newspaper As Safir, was not as impressed. He said Obama did not show enough concern for the destruction of Gaza. "It is strange to see [Obama] address the Arab world and not have a word to say about the plight of the people in Gaza."
The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.