It’s hard to know, amid the chaos and confusion, just what is driving the anti-American demonstrations around the Arab world. Perhaps a ridiculous and amateurish movie about the Prophet Muhammad really is to blame; the White House insists that’s the case, and riots over sacrileges both real and imagined are hardly uncommon in that part of the globe.
At the same time, it’s clear that much of the Islamic world still holds a dim view of America. And that represents a significant failure of Obama’s presidency. The Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that approval of the U.S. has actually declined over the past couple of years, to a miserable 15%, following a small positive bump when a man with the middle name of Hussein took office. It’s easy to forget now, but improving America’s standing abroad — including in the Islamic world, partly with the goal of muffling radicalism — was a central goal of Obama’s presidency. Go back and read Obama’s spring 2009 speeches in Ankara and Cairo, in which he declared that the U.S. is not “at war” with Islam and pledged “a new beginning” between Muslims and the U.S.
Looking back, this may have been an example of the magical thinking that conservatives say defined Obama’s early appeal: the notion that his mere ascendance could shift deep-rooted political realities at home and abroad. But as was the case in domestic politics, hard realities quickly set in. Obama’s efforts to shutter the Guantánamo Bay prison camp were stymied. He completed America’s exit from Iraq — but escalated the Afghanistan war. He sharply accelerated a drone campaign that may now be as inflammatory to Muslims as the orange jumpsuits of Gitmo were. And while Obama initially pressured Israel over the peace process, infuriating many American Jews, Palestinians never believed he was an honest broker genuinely concerned with their welfare.
So as the crowds swell outside American overseas embassies, Mitt Romney can fairly say Obama has failed at his own goal of rebooting America’s relations with the world’s Muslims. The catch is that there’s little evidence that Romney’s worldview would have produced a different result. Romney has argued that he would have projected more strength and “leadership” than Obama and never engaged in a global “apology tour.” (Never mind that Obama never issued apologies during his efforts to set a new post–George Bush tone abroad.) On Thursday night, Romney foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson argued that under Obama, “the respect for America has gone down, there’s not a sense of American resolve, and we can’t even protect sovereign American property.” This is what you might call the “strong horse” view of the Middle East. Romney has also argued that he would have continued Bush’s “freedom agenda” and done more to force dictators like Hosni Mubarak to implement political reforms that would allow for smoother and presumably more moderate transitions to democracy.
But it’s hard to see how, exactly, Romney’s approach would have left America better off today. For one thing, Romney mostly agrees with Obama on several flash points, including the Afghanistan surge, the continuing presence of Gitmo and the use of drones. As for the differences: Why would more pressure on Mubarak have meant less power for the Muslim Brotherhood, which now holds Egypt’s presidency? Given that American bellicosity in Iraq and elsewhere is a clear root cause of the animus we face, would a more aggressive tone and posture really make Muslim populations — and therefore their leaders — less hostile? And given that Romney insists he would be a more vigorous advocate for Israel’s interests, why wouldn’t that cause even more anger among those millions of Muslims who already resent the perceived unity between Washington and Tel Aviv?
All of which suggests three conclusions. One, that Barack Obama’s effort to change America’s image in the Islamic world has been a failure. Two, that Romney probably doesn’t have much better answers. And three, that anti-Americanism in the Arab world is an ingrained condition that has existed for decades — and that unfortunately may linger for decades to come, regardless of who our next President is.