In Arab world, Obama has fallen from grace

A new poll suggests deep disappointment with the US and Obama’s policies in the Arab world. Middle East specialist Khaled Elgindy sheds light on how a president who once inspired new hope in the region has ended up disappointing so many.


US President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 was seen as a potential start of a new chapter in relations between America and the Arab world.

But a new survey carried out by international polling firm YouGov in August shows that America today is deeply unpopular in the region; the number of respondents in the Middle East and North Africa who said they don’t trust America was more than double the number of respondents who said they do. 39% of those polled said they do not trust the US at all.

The poll implies that Obama’s more conciliatory tone toward the Arab world, as well as his ending of the war in Iraq and his support of the Arab Spring, have done little to boost America’s standing in the region.

France24.com spoke with Khaled Elgindy, a prominent Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, for insight into how a US president who initially inspired hope among Arabs fell so far short of expectations.

F24: The new poll shows Obama to be very unpopular in the Arab world. What are the major sources of disappointment?

Khaled Elgindy: There was obviously a lot of hope when he came in, huge expectations that Arabs and other Muslims had of him. The disappointment reflected in the poll is partly due to the fact that he didn’t live up to expectations. But it’s also because the expectations were exaggerated to begin with – and not just in the Arab world.

In the Arab world, the expectation was that he would do more on the Palestinian issue, which is, of course, a unifying theme in the minds of Arabs. From an Arab point of view, Obama has been consistently bad on that issue, even though in some Israeli circles he has also been seen as abandoning Israel.

Arabs are disappointed because, on the ground, policy has not really changed from the Bush era. Obama has not even reached the most minimal expectations of Arabs. There is a sense that he’s shown disregard for Palestinian government and Palestinian needs, and that it’s a very paternalistic relationship that the US has with Palestinians.

That stands in stark contrast to how the US has adapted its policies in the wake of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, the US has done a fairly good job in adapting to dramatic changes. Even though the president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration had a very thoughtful approach to taking into account new Egyptian public opinion and sensibilities. There has been no such consideration when it comes to Palestinian politics.

F24: When we say Obama elicited a lot of hope, was that hope among regular Arabs or also among Arab diplomats and leaders?

KE: Both. I don’t know what exactly diplomats and leaders were thinking, but anecdotally, I would say that part of the hope came from the fact that people were relieved that Bush was gone. Obama is someone who doesn’t look or talk like Bush. That pushed expectations even higher. So a lot of it was just relief, because from an Arab point of view, Bush was responsible for a lot of harm: in Iraq, Palestine, and in the Muslim world. So now, they’re saying: “We thought this guy would be really different from Bush, but he’s actually pretty similar -- not in the things he says, but in the things he does.”

F24: In the the wake of the killing of the US ambassador in Libya, Mitt Romney has been attacking Obama on his response. Will this incident have an impact on the presidential race?

KE: It’s not unexpected in an election season that a candidate would use an incident like this for political advantage. And it will resonate in certain circles. But I’m not sure it’s going to have a major impact in one direction or another. This election is not about national security. From what I can gather, the Republicans are not running on national security or foreign policy issues. That could change in the wake of this, if there are more attacks on US embassies. But still, Republicans would have a lot of catching up to do.

This election is actually different, because Democrats have appropriated the language of national security, of being tough on defence. In the past, it was a Republican strength, and Democrats were on the defensive. It will take more than an incident like this to change back to the old dynamic.

F24: As an American president, what could Obama have done differently in concrete terms?

KE: A lot. One thing he should have done when he came in -- though I understand why he didn’t, given the need to have continuity from the previous administration -- is a thorough review of lessons learned from the US failures to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He should have looked at what’s worked, and what hasn’t. And then when negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu collapsed two years ago, Obama should have reevaluated things. Instead of expecting a different outcome each time while doing the same thing, why not try to develop a new way forward?

There’s a political cost to each failure on all sides -- but especially when you’re the weakest side and as divided and dysfunctional as the Palestinians. They have no mandate to negotiate, they can’t handle failure. Calling on them to go back to a process that shows no signs of succeeding is proof that the Obama administration has not thought through the lessons of the past.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app