What Obama actually said

By Geoffrey Paul
January 11, 2009

Over the next few days, we are going to read many interpretations of what President-elect Obama said on Sunday, January 11, about the Middle East. For those who would like to read his own words for themselves, this is what he said in his ABC television interview with George Stephanopulous:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me move on to national security and foreign policy. We're now in the second week of the conflict in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinians. I know you've been reluctant to speak out too much on this. Let me show everyone what you said when you were in Israel last July.


OBAMA: I don't think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens. If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Would you say that in Israel today?

OBAMA: I think that's a basic principle of any country is that they've got to protect their citizens. And so what I've said is that given the delicacy of the situation, the one area where the principle of one president at a time has to hold is when it comes to foreign policy.

We cannot have two administrations at the same time simultaneously sending signals in a volatile situation. But what I am doing right now is putting together the team so that on January 20th, starting on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole.

That are going to be engaging with all of the actors there. That will work to create a strategic approach that ensures that both Israelis and Palestinians can meet their aspirations.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But as you know, in much of the Arab world, your silence -- your relative silence has been interpreted as callousness. And we also had a viewer question on this, Marin Guerrero of Riverside, California, asks you: "Why is Obama remaining silent on the Gaza crisis when so many innocent people are being killed?"

OBAMA: Well, look, I have said -- and I think I said this a couple of days back, that when you see civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli, harmed, under hardship, it's heartbreaking. And obviously what that does is it makes me much more determined to try to break a deadlock that has gone on for decades now.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But more broadly, will your policy in the Middle East, will it be building on the Bush policy or a clean break?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach.

And I think that players in the region understand the compromises that are going to need to be made. But the politics of it are hard. And the reason it's so important for the United States to be engaged and involved immediately, not waiting until the end of their term, is because working through the politics of this requires a third party that everybody has confidence, wants to see a fair and just outcome.

And I think that an Obama administration, if we do it right, can provide that kind of (INAUDIBLE).

STEPHANOPOULOS: Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry said this week at a conference that you will almost certain face, almost certainly face a conflict, a crisis with Iran in your first year in office.

Based on what you've learned, do you agree with that analysis and are you ready for it?

OBAMA: Well, I think that Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges. And as I said during the campaign, you know, we have a situation in which not only is Iran exporting terrorism through Hamas, through Hezbollah, but they are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have to do something about it in your first year.

OBAMA: And we are going to have to take a new approach. And I've outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start. That the international community is going to be taking cues from us in how we want to approach Iran.

And I think that sending a signal that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people, but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how a international actor behaves, is&


STEPHANOPOULOS: But a new emphasis on respect.

OBAMA: Well, I think a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk, but also a clarity about what our bottom lines are. And we are in preparations for that. We anticipate that we're going to have to move swiftly in that area.


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