The Arab world is sending a blunt message to Barack Obama: Mr. President, you have disappointed us. Your soaring speeches do not match your policies. You frustrated our hopes. You are no better than George W. Bush.
This comes through in two separate polls released in the United States this week, one from Zogby International and one from the Pew Research Center, and prompt a question: Could anyone have matched the exaggerated expectations and effusive advance praise that were showered on Mr. Obama after he won the presidency in 2008?
Let’s remember one of the reasons the Nobel Prize committee cited when it awarded America’s first black president the Peace Prize, just nine months into his term: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”
In the absence of significant accomplishments at the time, it was an aspirational award, a goal to be met in the future. The Obama administration’s diplomacy has been marked by zigzags and hesitation, the values that the US professes have not been applied consistently – and less so in the Middle East than anywhere else.
The new poll numbers speak volumes about a region’s disappointments. The Zogby poll, based on 4,000 face-to-face interviews, shows that 10 percent or less in the five countries surveyed (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) agreed with the policies pursued by Mr. Obama.
Favorable attitudes toward the United States fell to levels lower than in the last year of the administration of George W. Bush, the president widely reviled for the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, the Guantanamo prison and, even by US presidential standards, an especially cozy relationship with Israel.
Those surveyed in the Zogby poll (Arab Attitudes, 2011) named the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and “US interference in Arab affairs” as the biggest obstacles to peace and stability in the Middle East. On the Palestinian issue, the Obama administration received the lowest approval ratings across the board.
The Pew Research Center’s poll, a survey conducted in 23 nations, confirms Obama’s low standing in Arab countries. Majorities in the Palestinian territories (84 percent), Jordan (68 percent) and Lebanon (57 percent) lack confidence in the American president. In Muslim but non-Arab countries, he fares badly, too: 73 percent of Turks and 68 percent of Pakistanis lack confidence in Mr. Obama.
It is significant that both surveys were carried out after a speech by Mr. Obama on May 19 that was widely (and misleadingly) reported in the US media as signaling a sea change in American policy on a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He said that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
This had been the working hypothesis of American peace negotiators for many years and thus it made no dent on Arab opinion, judging from the polls.
What did make a dent, in 2009, was Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo, much lauded at the time, when he promised to seek “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and added, on a key point of contention:
“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” They did not.
The Cairo speech raised hopes around the Arab world and boosted Mr. Obama’s (and America’s) favorability ratings. They have dropped steadily since then, as the polls this week show.
And the lesson for the American president? Soaring oratory is not enough. Unless you match words with actions, your standing and credibility will remain poor. A promise not made is better than a promise broken.
Bernd Debusmann is a widely read international journalist and writer on foreign affairs based in Washington. He can be reached at: email@example.com