Home The Washington Diplomat September 2010 Disenchantment Sinking Obama’s Vaunted Mideast Engagement

Disenchantment Sinking Obama’s Vaunted Mideast Engagement

Disenchantment Sinking Obama’s Vaunted Mideast Engagement

When President Barack Obama stood at the podium of Cairo University last summer and delivered what became known as the “new beginning” speech to the region’s Muslims, newly sprung hope for cooperation between the United States and the Islamic world reached an apex. Obama’s soaring declarations generated waves of optimism that resonated in the corners of metropolitan cities and remote villages throughout the Middle East.


But polls suggest that the utopia was short-lived — if ever it took hold. Many in the Islamic world think Obama left his promises on that stage and went back to business as usual. And although the U.S. president still enjoys high approval ratings around the world, recent opinion polls have revealed overwhelmingly negative perceptions toward the United States in the Middle East — in an area of the world where many experts had hoped Obama would make the biggest impact.

Yet support for the president has soured as citizens in the Islamic and Arab worlds lose faith in the administration, whose fancy rhetoric of “new friendships” has faded and been replaced by the belief that Obama is unable to challenge what many see as the Washington status quo. The result is that anti-American sentiment persists throughout the region, with Obama unable to break the entrenched view that the United States seeks to dominate the Muslim world, undermine Islam, and impose its Western culture on other societies.

Numbers Tell the Story

The 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International and released in August, revealed a significant shift in opinion toward the U.S. president. It found that in 2009, almost a majority of people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates viewed President Obama positively or were neutral, while less than a quarter perceived him negatively. But those numbers flipped this summer — with more than 62 percent seeing the U.S. president in a negative light. In 2009, 45 percent held a positive view; by 2010, that was down to 20 percent — a big hit in popularity.

The Pew Research Center’s annual Global Attitudes Project released in June had similar findings, with fewer people this year than last year, in every Muslim country surveyed, approving of Obama’s international policies. Only 17 percent of Egyptian and Turkish citizens “approve” of Obama’s foreign policies — a decrease of 21 percent for Egypt and 17 percent for Turkey over the previous year. Only 9 percent of Pakistanis and 15 percent of Jordanians approve, another drop from 2009.

In stark contrast, U.S. favorability ratings remain high in Western Europe and have increased markedly in China and Russia, while India continues to give the United States good marks as well. Likewise, according to the Global Attitudes Project, opinions of America have become more positive in key countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Yet public opinion of Obama in the Middle East remains stubbornly low despite — or perhaps because of — the president’s efforts to ease diplomatic tensions. In Egypt, the percentage of Muslims expressing confidence in Obama fell from 41 percent in 2009 to 31 percent this year, and in Turkey it tumbled from 33 percent to 23 percent. Last year, only 13 percent of Pakistani Muslims expressed confidence in Obama, while this year it was a dismal 8 percent, according to Global Attitudes.

The Maryland-Zogby poll also confirmed this sinking optimism, with 51 percent of people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE describing their attitude toward Obama’s Mideast policies as “hopeful” in 2009, whereas only 16 percent used that description in 2010. Meanwhile, the percentage who said they were “discouraged” leapt from 15 percent in 2009 to 63 percent in 2010.

Perceptions of the United States as a whole didn’t fare much better, according to Global Attitudes. In Pakistan and Egypt, only 16 percent of Muslims polled said they viewed the U.S. “favorably” this year, while favorability in Turkey — estimated at more than 50 percent before former President George W. Bush took office in 2000 — now hovers at 17 percent after recently increasing from its lowest point, 9 percent favorability in 2007.

On that note, when compared with the region’s opinions of Bush, Obama’s ratings — though decreasing in the Middle East — remain vastly higher than his predecessor’s. John Voll, Islamic history professor and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Jalal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said Bush’s unpopularity was one reason the Islamic world viewed Obama so positively at first.

“The fact that Obama was African American was secondary to the fact that he wasn’t Bush,” Voll said. “The Arabs were so discouraged with Bush that the general sentiment in the region, and in part in the greater Islamic world, was ‘anyone but Bush.'”

Voll said many in the Middle East hoped Obama would begin a new decade of “substantial toleration” and, most importantly, change U.S. superpower unilateralism to a more multilateral approach.

Clearly, many people haven’t seen the policies to back up the Cairo declarations. As James Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, put it: “That excitement already feels like a distant memory. Although the speech succeeded in raising America’s standing in the Islamic world, it had virtually no effect on policy,” he recently wrote in his Foreign Policy blog. “Policy is made by regimes, and regimes in the region were not swayed by Obama’s proffer of a new policy of ‘mutual interest and mutual respect.'”

But what has or hasn’t happened between the Cairo speech and the present-day has only hampered Obama’s status in the region and done little to ease the tense standoff between the Middle East and the United States.

Opinion Hijacked by Wars

According to Akbar Ahmed, professor and chair of American University’s Islamic studies program, three major issues continue to generate anti-Americanism in the Middle East — but perhaps the most obvious reason for resentment of U.S. policies is its military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though Obama is fulfilling his campaign to draw down U.S. troops in Iraq, criticism of U.S. involvement in Iraq remains as high as ever among recent polls. Ahmed says that may in part be because Americans continue to underestimate the incredible toll and civilian deaths that the wars have wrought on the region over the past decade.

“I don’t think Americans are aware of what really happened in terms of the scale of destruction that took place Iraq,” he said, pointing out that with an estimated 1 million Iraqi civilians killed and another 4 million to 5 million refugees displaced across the Middle East — about 20 percent of the entire population — it’s no wonder people in the region dislike the United States. “If three members of your family were killed in Baghdad, you’re going to blame the occupying power who brought the war. That, in this case, is the U.S.,” he said.

“Iraq proved that the U.S. can destroy any country it wants to,” Voll said, agreeing that the invasion incensed many in the Middle East. And although it’s been widely proven that Iraq had no connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Iraqi citizens — and those of the entire region — saw their lives upended by 9/11.

To that end, people in the region hoped Obama would quickly withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan after he took office, according to Ahmed. Although he’s done so for Iraq, Obama called for the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, while a residual force of 50,000 remains in Iraq despite the August pullout.

It’s little surprise, therefore, that the Global Attitudes Project found overwhelming majorities in all Muslim countries — with the exception of Nigeria — disapproving of Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. Between 70 percent and 85 percent of populations in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon disapprove of Obama’s actions in both countries. Even Indonesia — a predominantly Muslim country with strong ties to Obama and where most say they look “favorably” toward the United States — has a majority that disapproves of the wars.

Yet just because Muslims condemn the Afghan and Iraqi wars doesn’t mean they necessarily embrace the stated targets of these wars: extremists. Although strong majorities oppose the U.S. military presence, around three-quarters of populations in Nigeria, Indonesia, Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan said they were worried about the rise of Islamic extremism.

In Lebanon, 94 percent of Muslims surveyed disliked al-Qaeda while around three-quarters of Egyptians and Turks, along with majorities in Indonesia and Jordan, also disapproved of the terrorist group. Yet despite the growing concern about extremism and disapproval of al-Qaeda in the Middle East, overwhelming majorities in Islamic nations still prefer the removal of U.S. troops in the region. Even Arab or Islamic governments that ask the United States for help or permit U.S. troops within their borders have little success in convincing their populations that an American military presence is necessary to thwart terrorism — rather the publics seem to think the presence only fuels it.

The Israel Factor

Both Voll and Ahmed agreed that another reason for strong anti-Americanism in the Middle East is the U.S. failure to strongly admonish its longtime ally, Israel, for settlement expansion and occupation of the Palestinian territories. That certainly wasn’t the case when Obama took office, with the administration promising to be an honest broker in the conflict and forcefully condemning Jewish settlements, signifying a dramatic departure from the carte-blanche policies of the Bush administration.

But as the 10-month moratorium on settlement expansion expires this month and Obama furiously works to broker direct peace talks, the harsh rhetoric has been replaced by pledges of “extraordinary friendship,” as Obama described relations during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent White House visit.

And the U.S. financial commitment to Israel was never in jeopardy despite any initial hiccups between Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship. Israel is on track to receive $3 billion in military financing from the U.S. government in 2011. The total budget for such financing is $5 billion, which means that Israel gets 60 percent, while another 70 countries who receive military aid share the other $2 billion. In addition, Israel is the largest beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid, exceeding $100 billion in direct and indirect aid since 1949.

Simply put, America’s strong alliance with Israel drives perceptions throughout the Middle East more than any other single issue, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Maryland-Zogby poll reported that views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have remained stable over the years, with 54 percent in 2010 describing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a key step that would most dramatically improve their views of the U.S., followed by an Iraqi withdrawal (45 percent) and stopping aid to Israel (43 percent). Similarly, 49 percent said they believed the factor most important in driving U.S. Mideast policy is protecting Israel, followed by controlling oil (45 percent) and weakening the Muslim world (33 percent). Spreading human rights was only cited by 6 percent of the people surveyed, while promoting democracy was named by 5 percent. Sadly, 57 percent predict a state of intense conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians for years to come, while another 30 percent say the status quo stalemate will just continue. As Foreign Policy’s Traub noted, “The ongoing stalemate has virtually killed off the ‘new beginning’ Obama promised in the Cairo speech.”

Global Attitudes also reflected an enduring bitterness toward the U.S.-Israeli allegiance, with 90 percent of Lebanese, 88 percent of Egyptians and 84 percent of Jordanians disapproving of the administration’s current policies toward Israel, backed up by majorities in Turkey and Pakistan.

So who is playing a constructive role in the region? France was named by 30 percent of respondents, followed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The United States came in last with 6 percent.

In fact, this widespread perception of U.S. bias toward Israel may be having the unintended consequence of bolstering Iran and its nuclear ambitions — something the U.S. and Israel have been adamant about stopping. Interestingly, Maryland-Zogby showed that the majority of people believe Iran is conducting nuclear research not for peaceful purposes but to build a bomb. Nevertheless, most people say Iran has the right to a nuclear program in spite of international condemnation against it, a belief that has only hardened since last year (77 percent in 2010 versus 53 percent in 2009). Moreover, only about 20 percent think Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear program, as opposed to 40 percent a year ago (although the figures are higher among people who believe Iran covets a nuclear weapon).

And despite ominous warnings about the dangers of a nuclear armed-Iran, it’s clear people in the Middle East don’t view the issue with same urgency as the United States or Israel — and in fact believe it could hedge against Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal. Reversing trends from a year ago, today 57 percent say that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it would be a positive outcome for the Middle East, 20 percent said it wouldn’t matter either way, while 21 percent viewed at as a negative development.

In fact, 88 percent of those surveyed by Maryland-Zogby saw Israel as the country that poses the biggest threat to them, with the United States coming in second at 77 percent. Iran ranked fifth on the list at 10 percent.

Disrespect and Double Standards?

Beyond the Afghan and Iraq wars, Iranian dilemma and never-ending Israeli-Palestinian saga, Ahmed said negative feelings also stem from a general consensus that Americans disrespect Islam. While spending time in the Middle East, the scholar said he found that “the number-one consistent reason for anti-Americanism is the negative image of Islam generated in the United States.” American commentators, he argues, are prime examples.

“If someone says something negative about African Americans or is anti-Semitic, others tell them to stop, but Muslims are an exception to the rule,” he charged. “You can call Prophet Muhammad a terrorist and a pedophile and not have to resign from your job.”

Ahmed said Muslims in the Middle East and around the world see this as a double standard. For example, whereas former White House correspondent Helen Thomas was pressured to retire after she made anti-Semitic comments in June, right-wing pundits such Ann Coulter, who called Islam a “car-burning cult,” remain quite popular.

Bring Your Ideals, Not Your Military

Voll said it’s important to make a distinction between unfavorable views of the United States versus U.S. policies, something he believes is not well articulated by simply looking at opinion polls.

“People in the Middle East have very favorable views of most Americans and envy the freedoms enjoyed in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not that people in the Middle East despise our human rights and freedom — it’s that the U.S. is supporting policies that they believe hurt the region.”

Supporting Voll’s hypothesis, past Gallup polls have shown that many in the Middle East admire America for its promotion of human rights, rule of law, fair political systems, free speech and gender equality.

But while they welcome American ideals, they clearly don’t welcome American muscle. The Global Attitudes Project found that majorities in all six predominantly Muslim nations surveyed — Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey — say they are very or somewhat worried that the United States could pose a military threat to their own country someday.

Interestingly, findings by World Public Opinion revealed though that very few people in Mideast countries support attacks on U.S. civilians. Whereas 46 percent of Americans said “bombings and attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are never justified in one World Opinion Poll survey, a far higher percentage of Muslims denounced civilian attacks — with 84 percent of Egyptians, 81 percent of Azerbaijanis, 78 percent of Moroccans, 74 percent of Turks and strong majorities in the other four Muslims countries disapproving of attacks on American civilians.

“A lot of Muslims in the Middle East and around the world look up to American ideals,” according to Ahmed. “Many have great respect for [George] Washington, [Thomas] Jefferson and human rights and genuine democracy. But people over there have said to me, ‘All these you keep to yourselves when you come abroad.'”

The U.S. support of dictators such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and cozy friendships with autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia have also raised eyebrows in the region. Voll said the American response, or lack thereof, to the corrupt 2009 presidential election in Iran was also disappointing to many who looked to Obama for support. Likewise, in Malaysia, another predominantly Muslim country, the United States has been largely quiet on the arrests of opposition leaders by the ruling government.

“They feel that America talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk,” Ahmed said.

In fact, according to World Public Opinion, most people in the Near East don’t believe the United States wants to promote democracy or fight extremism at all — the rationale often used by U.S. administrations to justify involvement in the region — but to capitalize on oil profits. The polls showed that 62 percent to 90 percent of people in all of the countries surveyed agreed that the U.S. goal in the Middle East is “to maintain control over the oil.” Large majorities also thought the United States either opposed democracy in the Middle East or, at best, supported democracy and followed international law only when it suited its political needs.

Still, Ahmed, Voll and other analysts remain cautiously optimistic about the future of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations with Obama at the helm. Voll believes “the world got exactly what it said it wanted” in Obama: a multilateral approach. But multilateralism, he added, takes more than one country, and “few countries [in the Middle East] have stepped up to do what their people want.”

Voll also pointed out that Obama has taken minor steps such as “putting himself on the line” by approving the recent Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty resolution that specifically mentioned regulation of Israel’s nuclear facilities.

“There are things that have been done that represent steps forward, but these are not glamorous or full victories,” Voll said. “I think we’ve come a step closer on a few issues, but it’s not necessarily an occasion for maypole raising and charismatic parades.”

Traub agrees that Obama’s deliberate foreign policy approach has brought about tangible gains, especially in the area of nuclear nonproliferation and sanctions against Iran, although he admits Obama’s charisma has dwindling. “Still, we shouldn’t mistake a transitory judgment for a final one. Obama has always been more patient than his critics,” Traub wrote. “It is too early to fill in the score card.”

Ahmed also remains hopeful in the face of continued anti-American sentiment in the Mideast and Islamic world. “The anti-American feeling is widespread but not very deep,” he said. “It’s not entrenched or inherent. Nations change their foreign policies all the time, so things can change.”

About the Author

Rachael Bade is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.