international analysis and commentary

Obama’s imperiled outreach to Muslims

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On the anniversary of President Barack Obama’s landmark speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, a new global survey by the Pew Research Center shows that he continues to be popular and to improve America’s standing in much of the world, with thenotable exception of Muslim countries – where he is less favorably viewed than he was a year ago.

For example, in Egypt, the setting of the President’s much-heralded address, only 17% said they had a favorable view of the US, the lowest rating in five years. Last year, 27% of Egyptians polled said they had a favorable view.The most alarming finding was in Turkey where support for Obama fell by a third, from 33 to 23%, and many of those polled in Turkey – a well-standing NATO member – view the US as a potential military threat.As to why Arabs and Muslims are disappointed, they uniformly cite a gap of credibility between Obama’s rosy promises and his actions. Exactly a year ago, the newly-inaugurated president traveled to Cairo and pledged to “reset” US relations with the Muslim world. He eloquently addressed critical challenges facing the US in the Muslim world and offered rhetorically a new paradigm, a new beginning, for managing relations between the two civilizations. The speech sent a clear message:“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”A year after President Obama’s speech, the reality of his Middle East policy is in sharp contrast to the promising rhetoric and high expectations he raised. Obama’s address, coupled with a concerted outreach strategy, made a deep impression among Arabs and Muslims. Many hoped that the young African-American president would seriously confront the challenges facing the region and establish a new relationship with the world of Islam.Obama raised expectations that concrete action would follow. Even forces of defiance and resistance, such Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, conceded that what Obama said represented a breath of fresh air in US foreign policy. But across the political spectrum, all stressed they would assess his policies and actions, not only his words.

A year later as the new global survey by the Pew Research Center shows, there is an increasing belief among Arabs and Muslims that Obama has failed to live up to his sweet words. The terminology of the War on Terror is no longer in use but Guantanamo Bay is still open and President Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. His Arab-Israeli peace drive has reached a deadlock and Obama lost the first round against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His promise to free the Palestinians from Israeli military occupation and to help bring about an independent Palestinian state will unlikely materialize in his first term in the White House.

The new president has also put the brakes on democracy promotion, and instead, embraced America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Israel – regardless of their domestic politics and conduct towards their citizens.

An increasing number of Arabs and Muslims say that the young president talks the talk, but does not walk the walk, and that his policies are an extension of his neoconservative predecessor – a sweetened poison. For them, Obama’s rhetoric rings hollow, empty talk.

Public opinion polls and surveys like the Pew study do not fully reflect the epth and intensity of the disillusionment with Obama. An entrenched view has taken hold among Muslims that the US is not genuine about engagement and pays lip service to their hopes, fears and aspirations.  

Obama likely misjudged the complexity of the region and the exuberant political costs associated with a transformational strategy. His promises of genuine engagement and building a new relationship with Islam’s 1.3 billion people are no longer taken as seriously – a fact that undermines the credibility and efficacy of his foreign policy in the Greater Middle East, including the wars against al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan and their Pakistani cohorts and counterinsurgency in general.

Obama has implicitly conceded that his Cairo speech rhetorically overreached. In an interview with Time magazine, Obama surprised his interviewer when pressed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, “This is just really hard… and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

Although it is not too late for Obama to close the gap between rhetoric and action, sadly for now, he has not taken bold steps to achieve a breakthrough in America’s relations with the Muslim arena. His foreign policy is more status quo and damage control than transformational. Like their American counterparts, Muslims desperately long for real change that they can believe in. 

If Obama really wishes to repair the damage wrought by his predecessor and to build a new relationship based on mutual interests and respect, he must have the will and vision to chart a new course of action and invest some of his precious political capital in resolving festering regional conflicts, particularly the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state, and making structural investment in institution building and civil society.

To do so, Obama’s foreign policy team must answer a critical question. Is he willing to invest precious political capital in freeing the presidency from the claws of the lobbyists and special interest groups who have a stranglehold over the country’s Mideast policy?

Arabs and Muslims too must realize that Obama does not possess a magical wand and does not bare all the blame for the lack of political progress in the region. Unfortunately, they placed high and unreasonable expectations on a new president without considering the complexity of the US foreign policy decision-making process nor the reality of American domestic politics. The imperial presidency is powerful but presidents’ hands are often constrained by Congress, the foreign policy establishment, domestic politics and the media and public opinion and advocacy groups. Obama’s domestic and foreign policy agenda is crowded and, on his own, he cannot deliver an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.

Perhaps a better question on this one year anniversary is what influence Muslim states can exercise in Washington, and what they are willing and able to do to support the desired transformation of relations. Will they be willing to employ their rich assets and present a genuine unified position?

If history is a guide, the answer is a resounding no. However, a starting point would be to take the initiative and help unify Palestinian ranks and establish a Palestinian government of national unity that negotiates peace with Israel. Another point is for the oil-producing Gulf states to devise a Marshal Plan to assist poor neighboring Arab countries like Yemen, Sudan and others cope with their grave social and economic crises. If Muslims really want to see meaningful change, they must lend a helping hand to steer the US foreign policy ship in the right direction. Instead of complaining and whining, Arabs and Muslims must marshal their assets and resources and play an active role in influencing US foreign policy and bringing about real, lasting change.