Obama Fails to Budge Arab Opinion

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The economy and the budget may be consuming Barack Obama’s presidency, but don’t forget that his candidacy was largely–perhaps even mostly–about foreign policy. At the core of Obama’s rationale for running in 2008 was his promise to restore America’s international strength, and diminish the threat of terrorism, by withdrawing our troops from Iraq, closing Guantanamo Bay, and reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world. There was even hopeful talk that his middle name alone would improve America’s image in places like Cairo and Islamabad. Today, such notions seem rather quaint.

The U.S. still has nearly 50,000 troops in Iraq, and they’re supposed to be gone by January, thousands may stay if the Iraqis want them. Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan (though he’s now trying to wind it down) and cranked up the drone war from Pakistan to Yemen. Gitmo remains open, military trials are proceeding, and Obama’s overall detention policies barely differ from those at the end of George W. Bush’s tenure. To be sure, Obama has extended a rhetorical olive branch to people of Muslim faith with his June 2009 address in Cairo and his May speech in Washington on the Arab Spring. But the net result has been… nada. Less than nada, actually.

A new poll of Arab attitudes towards the U.S. from the Arab American Institute pains a dismal picture of Arab opinion of the U.S., finding that “[i]n most countries they are lower than at the end of the Bush Administration.” More:

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. more than doubled in many Arab countries. But in the two years since his famous “Cairo speech,” ratings for both the U.S. and the President have spiraled downwards. The President is seen overwhelmingly as failing to meet the expectations set during his speech, and the vast majority of those surveyed disagree with U.S policies.

In five out of the six countries surveyed, the U.S. was viewed less favorably than Turkey, China, France—or Iran. Far from seeing the U.S. as a leader in the post-Arab Spring environment, the countries surveyed viewed “U.S. interference in the Arab world” as the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East, second only to the continued Palestinian occupation.

There are plenty of bleak footnotes. As Adam Serwer notes, our intervention in Libya–justified in part on the grounds that it would show America’s willingness to support the Arab people against brutal dictators–has apparently done little to improve our image. While many Israelis and Jewish Americans are angry at Obama’s approach to the Middle East peace process, there’s little sign of a commensurate benefit among Arabs. And, most depressing of all, the AAI finds that “[t]he killing of bin Laden only worsened attitudes toward the U.S.” Tough crowd!

What Obama can do to reverse this trend, at least within the confines of current political reality, isn’t clear. Getting most or all U.S. troops out of Iraq should help some; ditto for an exit from Afghanistan–but that remains years away. As long as Republicans hold significant power, Guantanamo isn’t likely to close anytime soon. Obama isn’t scaling back the fight against al Qaeda, which will require more drone strikes and other military operations in Islamic lands for the foreseeable future. It seems that one of Obama’s grandest campaign pledges is turning out to be one of his most unattainable.