Foreign Journos on Iran and “The Obama Effect”

As the raw Twitter feeds and YouTube footage filtering out from Iran generated scores of stories about the rise of citizen journalism, mainstream news outlets argued that it’s their role to provide context and confirmation.

After listening to a Q&A on Monday night with ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz and Al Arabiya’s Washington Bureau chief Hisham Melhem, I’d argue that that role is even more crucial. While social media has perhaps helped engage the public in a foreign story — no easy task in a saturated and satiated landscape — it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a full understanding of the region.

They were guests at the latest Foreign Policy Roundtable, held at the Bel-Air home of WME Entertainment’s Rick Rosen.with a crowd including Ken Ziffren, Lawrence Bender, Gail Berman, Barry Josephson, Jonathan Dolgen, Tracey Edmonds and Sarah Caplan.

While the Iran story has unfolded as elections then protests then crackdown, leading to comparisons to the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square or the protests in the Gdansk shipyards, it’s still perplexing to tell what it is all about and, certainly, to predict what happens next. As Melhem said, “What began as an election is now much, much more than that. It is a fight for the soul of Iran.”

The president’s speech in Cairo can easily give the impression that it triggered some kind of “Obama effect” in the region, but Melhem cautioned against overinterpreting outside influences in a country struggling with its own internal dynamics.

Raddatz described a country of extremely severe press restrictions. She herself wqas detained there for two days last fall when she and her crew tried to capture footage of authorities cracking down on a woman who had pulled back her head scarf.

What both journos noted is that Obama has had an undeniable impact on perceptions of the U.S. around the world.

“My sense is that it is truly just a rebooting and there is a a sigh of relief in much of the world,” Raddatz said.

Melhem, perhaps best known as the man who captured the first interview with Obama after the inauguration, says that even if elections in Iran and Lebanon were driven by internal influences, “there’s absolutely no doubt that this man injected himself into the political discourse.” As an example, he cited the way that Obama has used language, dropping the “messianic” terms of President Bush like “evil.” “The war on terror is the war on Al Qaeda,” he noted. The result is that it has made it more difficult for Islamists to “demonize” him.

Whether this fascination with Obama holds is a big question, and both Raddatz and Melhem expressed skepticism about the ability to make progress on peace talks with the Israelis and Palestinians, or in defeating al Qaeda along the Af-Pak border.

Raddatz said that the Israeli-Palestinan issues are probably “more complicated than he thinks.” “The issues always come back to the same thing, settlements and security.” Melhem noted the complications in dealing with the “fragmentation of politics” on both sides,” as well as the polarization in perceptions among the younger populations and the cynicism in the prospects for peace.

Although there’s been some optimism that the Pakistani government has beaten back al-Qaeda’s insurgence there, Raddatz said that she doesn’t share it. “Generally, we have no idea how this is going,” she said.

She recently asked a military source how far along the U.S. was in defeating al-Qaeda. The response was that “we are disrupting al-Qaeda, but we are not on a path to defeat al-Qaeda.”

Part of the equation is winning hearts and minds — the soft power of economic development and eradicating poverty. “Basically, we haven’t even started,” she said.

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