Marc Lynch

Arab disappointment with Obama

Arab disappointment with Obama is suddenly very, very important.  Fouad Ajami is very worried that Arabs are disappointed with Obama’s foreign policy — amazingly enough, for the same reasons he is!  Jackson Diehl is very worried that Arabs are disappointed with Obama’s foreign policy — amazingly enough, for the same reasons that he is!  It’s ...

Arab disappointment with Obama is suddenly very, very important.  Fouad Ajami is very worried that Arabs are disappointed with Obama’s foreign policy — amazingly enough, for the same reasons he is!  Jackson Diehl is very worried that Arabs are disappointed with Obama’s foreign policy — amazingly enough, for the same reasons that he is!  It’s hard to believe that they came up with the same idea at the same time, but the world is funny like that.  Meanwhile, Elliott Abrams is very worried that Obama is not concerned with real Arab people the way George Bush was and lacks his commitment to human rights and democracy.  

It’s great to see that Arab public opinion suddenly matters again!   But… wait a minute. If Arab opinion is to be taken seriously again, then there is some requirement to get it right.  And these three authors really, really don’t. 

Ajami, who has spent the last eight years writing long articles and multiple op-eds about how Arab public opinion does not matter, and who once called public opinion surveys in the Arab world the equivalent of counting the cats in the streets of Zanzibar, now finds Pew surveys showing only marginal change in approval of the United States very important indeed. Can’t think why. Oddly, Ajami fails to note that the Pew survey he quotes in fact found that most of the Arab public surveyed expressed far more confidence that Obama would do the right thing in world affairs than they did in Bush:  31% more in Egypt had confidence in Obama compared to Bush’s 2008 ratings, 24% in Jordan, 15% in the Palestinian territories, 13% in Lebanon. Never mind.  Ajami does not need "evidence" for he knows how Arabs feel, the patterns of the desert and the timeless tribal traditions, the hot arid summer which follows the blooming spring but leads inexorably to the fall and then the cold, hard winter.  He has anonymous Saudi drinking buddies. One should not argue.

For Diehl and Abrams, the problem lies in Obama’s allegedly reduced support for democracy and human rights. I have no doubt that many brave Arab reformists are disappointed with America’s support for their cause. Diehl hits the usual checklist — Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Ayman Nour, the Jordanian Minister of Political Development (whose government just abolished Parliament because it was annoying), an admirable Kuwaiti MP brought to speak in DC by the National Endowment for Democracy.   And they are certainly right that public freedoms and democratic openings are on the retreat across the region, and that Obama has largely foregone the grand rhetoric which the Bush administration preferred.

And good for him.  It’s not like the Bush administration’s support for democracy actually created much democracy, after all.  Instead, it raised expectations which were quickly dashed as the U.S. failed to follow through on its rhetoric (sound familiar?).   As both Abrams and Diehl admit, Bush’s democracy rhetoric ended rather quickly after it began.   The Bush administration largely stopped pushing democracy after the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006 — after some of those "real Arabs" that Abrams celebrates voted wrong — and not after the Annapolis process began, as Abrams oddly suggests.  From Condi Rice’s wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2005 to the deep freeze following the Hamas victory took about six months.  

They are right about one thing, though:  Arab public opinion is disappointed with Obama.  But it isn’t because he hasn’t lived up to his predecessor’s commitment to democracy and reform.  Many of the same reformists cited favorably in these pieces have complained loudly, for years, that American policies towards Israel and the Palestinians, the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Global War on Terror, and other deeply unpopular Bush administration policies badly undermined their credibility. Those complaints never seem to merit as much attention, for some reason.  And many of them hoped, with good reason, that Obama would help their cause by reversing those extremely unpopular policies. 

The reason that a growing slice of the Arab public is disappointed with Obama is pretty clearly not because of his attitude towards democracy but because they feel that he is not yet delivering on his promises to change American foreign policy from the Bush era.  Arab commentary and public discourse overwhelmingly focuses not on reform issues but upon the Israeli-Palestinian track:  Obama’s failure to deliver the promised settlement freeze from Netanyahu, his failure to do anything to alleviate the suffering of Gaza, his failure to bring about a Palestinian national unity government.  They also often cite a pattern of his insufficiently reversing Bush-era policies and discourse:  Guantanamo still open, escalation in Afghanistan, saber-rattling against the Iranian threat, and so on.  

The lessons of the Arab disenchantment are that Obama should deliver on his promises, not that he should abandon them, and that the Israeli-Palestinian track is for better or worse still what matters most in shaping Arab perceptions of American foreign policy.  There is no vindication of the Bush administration’s policies here, only frustration at his successor’s inability to rapidly reverse them.  And there, despite a great start on reframing relations with the Islamic world, a lot clearly still needs to be done.  

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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