The Middle East Channel

Sweetened poison: How Obama lost Muslim hearts and minds

A year after President Obama’s historic speech last June 4 in Cairo, the reality of his Middle East policy is in sharp contrast to the promising rhetoric and high expectations he raised. Obama’s address, coupled with a concerted outreach strategy, made a deep impression among Arabs and Muslims. Many hoped that the young African-American president ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A year after President Obama’s historic speech last June 4 in Cairo, the reality of his Middle East policy is in sharp contrast to the promising rhetoric and high expectations he raised. Obama’s address, coupled with a concerted outreach strategy, made a deep impression among Arabs and Muslims. Many hoped that the young African-American president would seriously confront the challenges facing the region and establish a new relationship with the world of Islam.

Although it is not too late for Obama to close the gap between rhetoric and action, sadly for now, he has not taken bold steps to achieve a breakthrough in America’s relations with the Muslim arena. His foreign policy is more status quo and damage control than transformational. Like their American counterparts, Muslims desperately long for real change that they believe in.  

Unless President Obama takes risks in the Middle East, he might end up leaving a legacy of broken promises and shattered expectations in the region. Unless addressed effectively, Obama runs the risk of rupturing America’s relationship with the Muslim Middle East further.

The Arab and Muslim response to the Cairo speech last year revealed a sense of optimism, of real change, tempered with instinctual scepticism. There also was a widespread feeling among many Arabs and Muslims that a man with the name, Barack Hussein Obama ("Blessed Hussein is with us"), would understand their universe better than his predecessors and treat them as partners, instead of subordinates, and rectify previous mistakes and misuses of American power.  

Obama raised expectations that concrete action would follow. Even forces of defiance and resistance, such Hizbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, conceded that what Obama said represented a breath of fresh air in U.S. foreign policy. But across the political spectrum, all stressed they would assess his policies and actions, not only words.

A year later, there is an increasing belief among Arabs and Muslims that Obama has failed to live up to his sweet words. The terminology of the War on Terror is no longer in use but Guantanamo Bay is still open and President Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. His Arab-Israeli peace drive has reached a deadlock, and Obama lost the first round against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His promise to free the Palestinians from Israeli military occupation and to help bring about an independent Palestinian state will unlikely materialize in his first term in the White House.   

The new president has also put the brakes on democracy promotion, and instead, embraced America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies–Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Israel–regardless of their domestic politics and conduct towards their citizens.

Obama’s inability to match rhetoric and action has deeply disappointed Arabs and Muslims who had hoped that the young president would transform America’s relations with the region, or, at least, open a new chapter. An increasing number of Arabs and Muslims say that the young president talks the talk, but does not walk the walk, and that his policies are an extension of his neoconservative predecessor–a sweetened poison. For them, Obama’s rhetoric rings hollow, empty talk. Public opinion polls and surveys do not fully reflect the depth and intensify of disillusionment with Obama. An entrenched view has taken hold among Muslims that the U.S. is not genuine about engagement and pays lip service to their hopes, fears, and aspirations.   

Obama likely misjudged the complexity of the region and the exuberant political costs associated with a transformational strategy. His promises of genuine engagement and building a new relationship with Islam’s 1.3 billion people are no longer taken as seriously, a fact that undermines the credibility and efficacy of his foreign policy in the greater Middle East, including the wars against Al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan and their Pakistani cohorts and counterinsurgency in general. Middle Easterners will not buy rhetoric emanating from the White House unless accompanied with a concrete shift in U.S. policies toward the region. Obama’s outreach to Muslims is at risk because of widely-held perceptions that he either does not mean what he says or cannot deliver on his tall promises.  

Obama has implicitly conceded that his Cairo speech rhetorically overreached. In an interview with Time Magazine, Obama surprised his interviewer when pressed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue: "This is just really hard…and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high."  

If Obama really wishes to repair the damage wrought by his predecessor and to build a new relationship based on mutual interests and respect, he must have the will and vision to chart a new course of action and invest some of his precious political capital in resolving festering regional conflict, particularly the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state, and making structural investment in institutional building and civil society.

To do so, Obama’s foreign policy team must answer several critical questions. Every president has limited political capital to invest in international relations. Is Obama willing to take stock of American foreign policy toward the greater Middle East, particularly relations between the United States and its local authoritarian clients? Is he willing to structurally reconsider the traditional U.S. approach, which views the region through the prisms of oil, Israel, and terrorism? Is he willing to listen to the fears and aspirations of young Muslims and to take risks to help bring about real change in their societies? Is he willing to invest precious political capital in freeing the presidency from the claws of the lobbyists and special interest groups who have a stranglehold over the country’s Mideast policy?

Arabs and Muslims too must realize that Obama does not possess a magical wand and does not bare all the blame for the lack of political progress in the region. Unfortunately, they placed high and unreasonable expectations on a new president without considering the complexity of the U.S. foreign policy decision-making process and the reality of American domestic politics as well. The imperial presidency is powerful but presidents’ hands are often constrained by Congress, the foreign policy establishment, domestic politics and the media and public opinion and advocacy groups. Obama’s domestic and foreign policy agenda is crowded and, on his own, cannot deliver an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.

Perhaps a better question on this one year anniversary is what influence Muslim states can exercise in Washington, and what they are willing and able to do to support the desired transformation of relations. Will they be willing to employ their rich assets and present a genuine unified position? If history is a guide, the answer is a resounding no. If they really want to see meaningful change, then Muslims must lend a helping hand to steer the U.S. foreign policy ship in the right direction. Arabs and Muslims must stop whining and blaming the young president and, instead, play an active role in influencing U.S. foreign policy and bringing about real, lasting change.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, London University. Gerges has written extensively on relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Among his books is America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures Or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge University Press).      

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