July 15, 2011

Arab Attitudes: Obama Cracking the Ice

President Barack Obama’s rapid descent from his “New Beginning” in Cairo is a globally accepted fact. In May the Pew Research Center found that his administration’s response to the Arab Spring had further eroded America’s image in the Islamic world, a highly-publicized goal of Obama’s campaign. Other polls resulted in similar conclusions - or else one could listen to the millions of protesters dissatisfied with Obama’s inaction.

Yet the sheer shock of Zogby International's Arab Attitudes: 2011 is enough to overwhelm rational thought and preexisting empirical evidence. According to James Zogby, “American democracy [seems] a lot like damaged goods to many Arabs… U.S. policy in the region has increasingly undermined Arab attitudes toward America as a global model.”

Unfortunately many sources are only summarizing Zogby’s findings, ignoring the full real truth behind his numbers. Our reaction is two-fold: perpetual anti-Americanism stems from Obama's own decisions, and Zogby’s poll results are worse than they appear.

While Arab Attitudes: 2011 reveals a depressing portrait of Obama’s personal standing and America’s image in the Muslim world, Zogby neutralizes his venom by arguing that Obama received a bad hand from George Bush. His own conclusion is partially justified on the results of his polling, which align with many polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR). Bush had run the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the ground and ended by green-lighting the Gaza War, necessitating Obama to promise that he would engage both parties “from day one.” Afghanistan was neglected in favor of Iraq and Pakistan was just expelling the U.S.-allied Pervez Musharraf.

Zogby summarized, “Obama's performance ratings are lowest on the two issues to which he has devoted the most energy: Palestine and engagement with the Muslim world.”

We agree that Bush’s spillover entangled Obama’s foreign policy in Palestine and Afghanistan. However the second part of Zogby’s conclusion contradicts the notion of blaming Bush, an excuse that lost its validation between 2009 and 2011. At some point the current president must accept responsibility for the decisions of the U.S. government; all administrations are encumbered by their predecessors and a Congressional tug-of-war. George Bush didn’t promise what Obama couldn’t deliver, isn’t telling him to adhere to Israeli policy and isn’t blinding him to the Arab Spring.

Many of his former supporters also base their opposition on Obama’s war-mongering tendencies - often believing him to be Bush-lite - and are thus unlikely to believe his problems are the last administration's fault. When the CIA's Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistanis, his administration manhandled Islamabad like Bush’s White House.

Nevertheless, Zogby writes in Foreign Policy, “To his credit, the President understands the dilemma America confronts across the Arab World. He began his term in office with the right intentions and sent signals he would move in the right direction. But, as I have noted, on Inauguration Day Barack Obama did not receive a magic wand. Instead, he was handed the shovel that George W. Bush had been using to dig deep holes all over the Middle East. Getting out of those holes has been harder than he imagined. In addition to confronting the worst domestic economic crisis in generations, the President had to face down two failed wars, an incorrigible and manipulative Israeli leader, a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian polity, and a wary but hopeful (maybe too hopeful) world that expected him to deliver on promised change.”

This type of thinking excuses Obama from one of his main faults: promising far more than he could deliver. He deserves more blame, not less, for intentionally raising Muslim expectations out of political self-interest. The Obama administration has also played a direct and delusional role in the Arab Spring. Many insider accounts portray him as believing he supports the revolutions, in apparent ignorance of the outside world. Obama is more aware of his disapproval than he lets on, but he’s notoriously aloof, over-reliant on rhetoric and slow to make his foreign policy decisions.

Even then he often chooses wrongly. Aside from stopping Libya’s onslaught at the last moment, Obama has exhibited a distinct pattern of suppression in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, a policy that runs straight through Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution. Obama’s popularly is falling specifically because he promised not to be like Bush and failed to deliver. He had publicly built himself into the perfect man to transition through the Arab Spring.

Instead he became a very real part of the problem.

One particular area of suspicion is America’s ever-expanding drone fleet, another trend that Obama not only borrowed from Bush but evolved of his own volition. A majority of Americans are pleased that automatized warfare represents the next phase in U.S. military operations; Obama and numerous Defense officials are busy crusading drone effectiveness in hostile environments. Part of this decision is traced to America’s debt and the need for cheaper warfare, but drones also satisfy Washington’s long-standing quest to increase the duration of aerial missions and reduce military casualties. A healthy U.S. minority and a weighty international majority believe the Obama administration is committing many moral and strategic violations through the short-term use of drones.

Of grave significance, “The killing of bin Laden only worsened attitudes toward the U.S... The prevailing view is that the killing of bin Laden will not appreciably improve the region.”

Zogby’s single digit approval stands in vivid contrast to U.S. opinion, which generally believes that Osama bin Laden’s death will improve America’s security. By the same token Obama’s personal divergence continues to widen; bin Laden’s raid and a faux drawdown from Afghanistan have boosted Obama’s sagging foreign policy numbers above 50%. New leeway has further enabled Obama to pursue a disastrous policy in the Middle East, such as his response to Yemen's revolution, with negligible domestic consequences. The good news is that, “majorities in every country say that the killing of bin Laden makes them view the U.S. less favorably. Given that overall favorable ratings are already so low, this should not make a substantial difference in the ratings.”

Because of these factors, the bottom-line of Zobgy’s poll likely drops below the 10% favorable rating he tracked in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These countries are among the most favorable Muslim countries, along with Indonesia. Libya and Syria’s ratings may be on a gradual upswing, but Obama’s image would be undoubtedly gloomier were Zogby to add the Palestinians, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Turks and Pakistanis. While Zobgy concluded that Obama is skating on thin ice, he might be forced to concede that the ice is already cracking.

And the Obama administration will eventually plunge into freezing waters if it fails to correct its response to the Arab Spring.

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