Truth to Power

The Legacy of Barack Obama’s Cairo Speech

In Foreign Policy, Israel, Mainstream Media, News, Politics on June 19, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo was a much-needed acknowledgment that the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency was a diplomatic disaster. While the neoconservatives love to beat their chests and clutch their pearls and frame much of the Muslim world as an enemy of the U.S. there is one big loser- the U.S. The fact is, most of our strategic interests at this point lie squarely in the Middle East and other geopolitical regions which are predominately Muslim. To write off the Muslim world with a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality is entirely self-defeating. Of course, the neocons have never been good at doing more than talking tough and leaving a huge mess for other people to clean up.

A recent poll however demonstrates that like so much else associated with Barack Obama, there was a lot of raised expectations but not much follow through:

A year after President Obama’s speech in Cairo vowing to reset relations with the Muslim world, Muslims worldwide are telling pollsters about their disillusionment with what they consider unfulfilled expectations.

According to the Pew Center’s new survey of global attitudes (PDF), released Thursday morning, citizens of Muslim nations report disproportionate antipathy to Obama’s foreign policy. With the exception of Indonesia, where Obama spent a portion of his childhood, Muslims are the exceptions to the Pew poll’s findings that eighteen months of the Obama administration have seen a surge of international support for the United States after the public-opinion troughs of the Bush administration.

“The Pew results reflect growing dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies, as many Arabs and Muslims are disappointed that Obama has not lived up to his promises, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor and the co-author of a recent Center for a New American Security report measuring Obama’s global engagement efforts. “They don’t see his actions matching his words, and until they do then it isn’t likely that there will be a sustained recovery in America’s image.”

In Jordan, the U.S. approval rating has fallen to 21 percent. It’s at 17 percent, the lowest of any countries Pew surveyed, in Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan. And this comes after the Obama administration has presided over the largest non-military aid package to Pakistan — the $7.5 billion, five-year Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill — in history.

“Opposition to key elements of U.S. foreign policy remains pervasive,” Pew analyzes, “and many continue to perceive the U.S. as a potential military threat to their countries.”

The news is not universally negative. Nigerian Muslims give Obama a 70 percent approval rating, up from 61 percent in 2009. But they’re the outliers. In Egypt and Lebanon, Obama’s ascendance — and the departure of George W. Bush — elevated Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. somewhat: 25 percent of Egyptians reported favorable opinions of the U.S. in 2009, up from 20 percent a year earlier; Lebanese Muslims in 2008 had given the U.S. a 34 percent favorability rating, which rose to 47 percent in 2008. Now Egyptian Muslims have reverted to their pre-Obama 20 percent favorability rating. Lebanese Muslims have settled into a 39 percent favorability rating.

More ominous from the perspective of Obama’s Cairo speech, Muslims express a sentiment directly opposite the speech’s offer of partnership: They fear that the U.S. will attack them. Majorities, and sometimes large ones, of respondents in Egypt (56 percent), Lebanon (56 percent), Indonesia (76 percent), Pakistan (65 percent), Jordan (52 percent) and Turkey (56 percent) believe the U.S. is a potential military threat. That shouldn’t be surprising: Pakistan, despite being a Major Non-NATO Ally of the U.S., is currently battered in its tribal areas by CIA drone strikes, a step the U.S. has taken in response to what it considers insufficient Pakistani military action against al-Qaeda-aligned extremist groups. In Cairo, Obama pledged that the U.S. “is not, and never will be, at war with Islam,” but many Muslims worldwide believe that the U.S. still has them in its crosshairs…

Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News makes the case that Obama is seen by the rest of the world as an incompetent amateur and he provides the usual laundry list of neoconservative reasons- the timetable for leaving Afghanistan, being mean to our allies (read Israel) while extending a hand to our enemies (read Iran), being too deferential to other nations, blah, blah, blah.

Here’s a taste of Zuckerman’s analysis:

President Obama came into office as the heir to a great foreign policy legacy enjoyed by every recent U.S. president. Why? Because the United States stands on top of the power ladder, not necessarily as the dominant power, but certainly as the leading one. As such we are the sole nation capable of exercising global leadership on a whole range of international issues from security, trade, and climate to counterterrorism. We also benefit from the fact that most countries distrust the United States far less than they distrust one another, so we uniquely have the power to build coalitions. As a result, most of the world still looks to Washington for help in their region and protection against potential regional threats.
Click here to find out more!

Yet, the Iraq war lingers; Afghanistan continues to be immersed in an endless cycle of tribalism, corruption, and Islamist resurgence; Guantánamo remains open; Iran sees how North Korea toys with Obama and continues its programs to develop nuclear weapons and missiles; Cuba spurns America’s offers of a greater opening; and the Palestinians and Israelis find that it is U.S. policy positions that defer serious negotiations, the direct opposite of what the Obama administration hoped for.

The reviews of Obama’s performance have been disappointing. He has seemed uncomfortable in the role of leading other nations, and often seems to suggest there is nothing special about America’s role in the world. The global community was puzzled over the pictures of Obama bowing to some of the world’s leaders and surprised by his gratuitous criticisms of and apologies for America’s foreign policy under the previous administration of George W. Bush. One Middle East authority, Fouad Ajami, pointed out that Obama seems unaware that it is bad form and even a great moral lapse to speak ill of one’s own tribe while in the lands of others.

Even in Britain, for decades our closest ally, the talk in the press—supported by polls—is about the end of the “special relationship” with America. French President Nicolas Sarkozy openly criticized Obama for months, including a direct attack on his policies at the United Nations. Sarkozy cited the need to recognize the real world, not the virtual world, a clear reference to Obama’s speech on nuclear weapons. When the French president is seen as tougher than the American president, you have to know that something is awry. Vladimir Putin of Russia has publicly scorned a number of Obama’s visions. Relations with the Chinese leadership got off to a bad start with the president’s poorly-organized visit to China, where his hosts treated him disdainfully and prevented him from speaking to a national television audience of the Chinese people. The Chinese behavior was unprecedented when compared to visits by other U.S. presidents.

Obama’s policy on Afghanistan—supporting a surge in troops, but setting a date next year when they will begin to withdraw—not only gave a mixed signal, but provided an incentive for the Taliban just to wait us out. The withdrawal part of the policy was meant to satisfy a domestic constituency, but succeeded in upsetting all of our allies in the region. Further anxiety was provoked by Obama’s severe public criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his coterie of family and friends for their lackluster leadership, followed by a reversal of sorts regarding the same leaders.


Les Gelb wrote of Obama, “He is so self-confident that he believes he can make decisions on the most complicated of issues after only hours of discussion.” Strategic decisions go well beyond being smart, which Obama certainly is. They must be based on experience that discerns what works, what doesn’t—and why. This requires experienced staffing, which Obama and his top appointees simply do not seem to have. Or as one Middle East commentator put it, “There are always two chess games going on. One is on the top of the table, the other is below the table. The latter is the one that counts, but the Americans don’t know how to play that game.”

Notice that Israel is not mentioned once- not in the excerpt and not in the entire article. But of course, much of Zuckerman’s analysis is actually really about Israel. Anyone who has read Zuckerman’s weekly commentary in U.S. News knows that he has been extremely critical of Obama’s attempts to get Israel to act like a true friend of the U.S. (as opposed to the sole burden of friendship laying squarely on the shoulders of the U.S.) and to get them to halt illegal settlements past the Green Line in order to move the peace process forward- something that would make Israel much safer in both the long and short term. But Zuckerman would have none of it.

Also absent from Zuckerman’s analysis is the role that he and his fellow neocons have played in undermining Obama’s foreign policy. While I disagree with the hawkish turn Obama took after his Cairo speech (increasing troops in Afghanistan, obsessing over Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program, continuation of some of Bush’s worst anti-terrorism policies, etc.), it’s simply disingenuous of the likes of Zuckerman to whine about Obama’s lack of standing in the world. It is because of people like Zuckerman, who criticize his Middle East policies, his attempts to steer the U.S. away from some of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies regarding alleged terrorists (ie. civilian trials vs. military tribunals for some) which have emboldened some of America’s difficult allies such as China, Brazil, Turkey and yes, Israel, to treat the U.S. like their pool boy.

Essentially, Zuckerman longs for the good ‘ole days of the Bush administration when torture was the order of the day, Iran was the center of the axis of evil and our military misadventures gave them an opportunity to wave the flag and denounce others as unpatriotic or too lax on terrorism. Never mind that most of the above has only increased anti-American sentiment and undermined our strategic objectives in the Muslim world. But what does that matter to Zuckerman, who can saber-rattle for the next military conflict (Iran, he hopes) from the safety of his multimillion dollar home in N.Y. Never mind that the necons have been wrong about virtually everything for the past 10 years. But hey, there’s always a first time, right?

It’s so easy to support wars when one doesn’t have to fight them.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stacy, Progressive Pantheon. Progressive Pantheon said: The legacy of Barack Obama's Cairo speech &the danger of raising expectations but w/o delivering: #obama #muslims […]

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