Has Obama honored his Middle East pledges?
Three years after he promised a rapt Cairo audience a shift in his country’s unpopular Middle East policy, U.S. President Barack Obama goes to the polls leaving disappointment in a region swept by the Arab Spring.
Obama’s critics say he has not honored his pledges, such as settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or improving relations with Muslim countries.
A survey in June by the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre reported Obama’s popularity had fallen in five Muslim countries, including Egypt, where he was down by 13 points in a year.
During Obama’s presidency, four Middle Eastern dictators were toppled in popular uprisings, including Hosni Mubarak, who had hosted him in Cairo. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebels helped by air strikes by the U.S. and other NATO allies.
Grievances against the United States have changed little since Obama pledged, in a speech delivered at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.”
Israel, with US backing, continues to dominate Palestinian lands, Obama’s critics say. Totalitarian Arab Gulf states, also with US backing, repress human rights.
And anti-U.S. sentiment runs high -- violent protests sparked by a crude movie insulting the Prophet Mohammed, produced by a Coptic Christian in the United States, targeted US missions and institutions across the region in September.
In Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, suspected Islamist militants attacked the US consulate killing Ambassador Chris Steven on Sept. 11, exactly 11 years after Islamist militants from US allies such as Saudi Arabia destroyed the World Trade Centre.
The Benghazi attack became a heated campaign issue between Obama and his rival Mitt Romney, as did Iran’s nuclear program, another major security concern in the region.
“People aren’t very impressed with Obama, but they’re not impressed with Romney either,” said Issandr el-Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst.
“They see him as more in the (former president George W.) Bush mould,” el-Amrani said of the deeply unpopular president who was regionally viewed as a warmonger.
But the Arab world is more focused on Obama’s failed attempts to resolve the Palestinian issue, and how he dealt with the impact of the Arab Spring.
“I met Obama in February 2010 in the White house, and until then I was optimistic,” said Gamal Eid, a prominent Egyptian rights lawyer who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
Eid says he has since become disappointed.
“He could have pushed human rights in the Gulf, or supported the Palestinians, or stopped U.S. support for tyrants, which did not happen.”
‘For all the good intentions, the result was deplorable’
Despite Obama’s stance on some of the Arab Spring uprisings, including backing a NATO-led air blockade that helped Libya’s rebels topple Qaddafi, the goodwill he gained is giving way to old mistrust, an analyst said.
“It’s probably safe to extrapolate that U.S. intervention in Libya didn’t have a lasting effect on the way people in the region view the United States,” said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Muhannad Abdel Hamid, a Palestinian political analyst, said he was resigned to the same U.S. policy towards Palestinians.
“Obama did not follow his speech at Cairo University after he was elected president... and there was no Arab pressure or any blame on him, and he remained at the helm of a U.S. policy originally aligned on Israel,” he said.
An Arab diplomat who took part in U.S.-led efforts to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians said Obama “got off on the wrong foot.”
Rather than boldly going for an “end game”, Obama tried to get Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and with that failing, the process was put on hold, he said.
“For all the good intentions, the result was deplorable,” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity because he still holds a sensitive position.
Liberals, disappointed by the outcomes of the uprisings which left Islamists in control of Egypt and Tunisia, say meanwhile they feel sidelined by Washington.
“Obama seems to have agreed that we can have moderate Islamists in power,” said Miftah Bouzeid, a liberal editor of a newspaper in Benghazi.
The Islamists have their own misgivings.
“Obama’s a good speaker, but he didn’t implement anything on the ground,” said Mahmud Ghozlan, a senior member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which fielded President Mohammed Mursi in last summer’s election.
Still, Ghozlan said he would prefer an Obama victory. “Romney is like Bush.”
In Iraq, from which Obama finally withdrew U.S. troops left over from the 2003 invasion, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s spokesman declined to favor Obama or Romney.
“Even if there was some change in parties, the change in policy would be very slight, it would not affect relations of the two states because our relations are based on the interests of the two countries,” said Ali Mussawi.