Commentary

Obama Fumbles His Opportunity with the Arab World

The results of a new Zogby poll confirm that attitudes toward the United States among Arab populations are as negative as ever. Reaction in this country has generally divided into two camps. One faction shrugs its collective shoulders and embraces the convenient excuse that Arabs always hate the United States. That is untrue historically, and the notion carries with it the insidious implication that anti-Americanism is embedded in Arab DNA, rather than being a reaction to Washington’s policies in that part of the world.

The contrasting interpretation is that such hostility is still a carryover from the Bush years and that given time President Obama will improve America’s image in the Arab world as he has in Europe and some other regions (For an earlier argument along those lines, see here and here). Unfortunately, there is a major problem with that thesis. There was a measurable improvement in Arab attitudes toward the United States as a result of Obama’s early comments and gestures — especially his 2009 speech in Cairo. But that initial bump in popularity has not only vanished, positive views of the United States are now lower in many Islamic countries than they were at the end of the Bush administration.

There is a likely explanation for such a severe reaction. Most Arabs had few illusions about U.S. foreign policy toward their region under George W. Bush — or for that matter, under most of his predecessors. But Obama’s initial rhetoric suggested that this time, there might be a real change in Washington’s approach. The plummeting ratings in the new Zogby poll probably reflect dashed hopes. It is a very normal human reaction to regard a hypocritical adversary with even greater loathing than an adversary who makes no pretentions.

In that respect, the Arab reaction toward Obama’s performance mirrors the reaction of Americans who thought that his foreign policy — and perhaps even his domestic economic policy — would be an improvement on the Bush years. Disillusioned supporters who have watched as Obama has dramatically escalated the ill-advised war in Afghanistan, continued to seek ways to prolong U.S. military presence in Iraq and persisted in lavishing money on the Pentagon, can empathize with Arabs who had hoped for better policies coming out of Washington. So, too, can Americans who held out at least faint hopes that Obama might be a new kind of Democrat — one who took the need for fiscal responsibility seriously.

If the United States wants to repair its tattered image in the Arab world (and elsewhere), it needs to dramatically change its policies, not just have political leaders occasionally deliver nice-sounding speeches. Washington cannot purport to support democracy while continuing to crawl into bed with autocratic regimes merely because those rulers back certain U.S. policies (Saudi Arabia) or provide convenient military bases (Bahrain). Nor can U.S. leaders expect much gratitude from hard-pressed populations when the United States belatedly abandons a corrupt tyrant that it backed for decades, as in the 11th hour divorce of Hosni Mubarak. People see through such cynical diplomatic conversions.

America was once the beacon of hope for so much of the world — including the Arab world. It is sad that this country no longer holds that status. It doesn’t have to remain that way, but “hope and change” must take the form of something more than hollow rhetoric.

Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow of foreign policy studies at The Cato Institute, is the author of Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America, as well as other books on international affairs.