More of the Same

The 2010 Arab Opinion Survey seems to communicate similar, if increasing, dissatisfaction with the Obama administration in the Arab world. Though distinct in many ways from last year’s Pew Poll on similar subjects, the survey reveals many of the same lessons. Growing disappointment and pessimism appear to be the result of the Obama foreign policy in the region, of which this blog has been critical with some consistency.

One should not mistake that for hostility or distaste for President Obama (this blogger endorsed him) but instead for an intellectual style that presumes much of the Arab and Muslim peoples and the president as if ethnic, racial or pseudo-religious credentials effortlessly overcome long-standing political interests and contentions; that by giving a Sermon on the Nile, flexing the muscles of tokenism and setting up some glitzy websites where hum-haw speeches are translated into Arabic or Farsi a man could “transform” a whole system of pathologies and power relationships that have real, everyday consequences for millions of people.

There are rarely prophets in politics, only politicians and statesmen. For the moment, the United States is led by a politician mostly because it faces a great crisis of identity, confidence and economy. In office, Barack Obama is somewhat convincing in an especially trying domestic environment; because this consumes so much of his attention he barely leads internationally and when he does it appears symbolic and even, at times, disingenuous.

Not much needs to be said where the findings are concerned. They show increasingly negative opinions of the United States, President Obama and the course of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. One is surprised to find that large numbers of Arab respondents would prefer not to live or study in the United States, but would prefer France or Germany as alternatives (one can make a snide comment about how elite cowardliness  has made anti-Muslim bigotry more widespread and more acceptable in normal discourse over the last two years and that this damages the nation’s image and honor; this is subject for another post, though). There Arabs that are happier with the Obama administration’s “attitude towards Islam,” which is a “plus” but one must ask: what is the real situation? Has the Obama administration improved or damaging American perceptions of Islam and Muslims, possibly allowing a change in elite attitudes and behavior that would simply reverse the image of a tolerance of Islam? Have domestic and foreign policy in this area moved too far apart? If a Republican succeeds this president, is there elite consensus that the country is better off not being seen as a center of anti-Islamic sentiment? Does the way everyday Arabs or Muslims look at America really matter at all?

There were many commentators last summer who believed poor poll results for the Obama administration could be dismissed or viewed with the glass half-full because the administration was young; that, whatever the numbers said, Obama was doing “better than Bush” (an excuse for laziness on the left and for potshots in the domestic context); that, as in baseball, real success required more “follow through” in the months and years ahead. The last point is perhaps true and might be applied nowadays. Yet the fact is, the crucial “follow through” has not come. What has come is poorly managed diplomatic activity, domestic distractions that have allowed client states to humiliate the President and Vice President publicly through defiance and snubs; half-hearted and mediocre public diplomacy and community engagement campaigns; wild tokenism, and so on. One can applaud initiatives aimed at scientific education and youth engagement. Indeed many of these, though they are frequently preceded by useless speeches or presentations about less useful administration activities, carry on with concrete goals that actually have impact on the lives of individuals and some communities. But this not so much the point; educating engineers or doctors fits well with modernization theory but it will not solve the actual political problems that face the United States in the “Muslim world”.

In any case, the ridiculous and condescending optimism about President Obama’s natural or essential appeal to Muslims and Arabs can no longer hold water among the intellectually honest. There are many things of great importance today on which no American leader can close ranks with the average person in the Middle East; their leaders are a different story and they are far more important for American foreign policy — including the permanence or impermanence of their staying power, their brutality, their prudence or imprudence and their relationships with one another and their peoples. There is only so much the United States can do where Palestine or Iran are concerned. Local actors and elites must deal with the rest. There is a clash of worldviews not only between the United States and particular foreign leaders, but also between many foreign leaders and their own populations. This is manifest looking at the “Worldview” section of the Survey; certainly decision makers in Morocco and Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be put off by some of their citizen’s political fancies. The failure of the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy or its weakness where the Israel/Palestine issue is concerned, are testaments to this fact. It now appears to many that America’s universe revolves around Iran’s nuclear program — when it would benefit the American position somewhat more if the opposite were the case, regardless of the progress of the country’s nuclear program (more biting responses short of war might be more feasible in such a case, and America could operate from a position of greater relative strength). The whole situation reveals a lack of confidence and weariness, draining creativity in policy and action (which bureaucracies already erode).

The Survey says as much about American perceptions and psychoses as it does about the Arab respondents’. The division between psychologists and theologians — those who believe that by understanding and trying to allay foreign peoples’ and powers’ fears and those who believe that no discussion or engagement is needed or possible because the Other is “evil” — meets where the relationship with troublesome foreigners transforms as a result of change in the Other, after which the value of harmony and coexistence become apparent to all. This is rarely the case and pursuing policy objectives as if it were the norm and not the exception creates unnecessary complications, except where it creates advantageous delays. At present the current policy does not move to recover lost American prestige, nor does it increase the appearance or substance of American power to adversaries. This must be said with understanding of the miserable condition the United States has found itself economically and socially over the last several years, which demands far more attention than any effort to play up a happy image in the Middle East. As this blogger wrote last December:

That said, it should be explicit, rather than unstated, that there is no altruism in American Middle policy regardless of what president carries it out. There will be Arabs disappointed with American policy in any case, because that policy is designed to suit and serve American interests and nobody else’s. Whether it is presented so as to make Arabs happy or not, most will know and understand that the United States is a foreign power with its own pursuits as the ultimate goal of its activity. American support for reform, democratic or otherwise, will be weak so long as the regimes in the region are deemed useful and friendly and their peoples see their interests as being out of line with a dominant US position there. Bush’s rhetoric was plainly disingenuous for many Arabs; Obama’s has been not much more, though less so because of the power of his ideas than because of his personal aura and good will for not being Bush. The misery of the Bush policy has proven to be durable in that it makes a change of course difficult and painful, having caused much misery and disorder. It is not easy clean up so large a mess. But the trouble many Americans have with that is not that the goals of that policy were wrong but that it was done in an artless and violent way and that it was marketed poorly. The intentions are all the same, to state the obvious. Reform is a secondary, if not tertiary priority, under any administration. Lynch is right: more than reframing needs to go on, and Obama’s grace period has lasted too long. It has allowed his policy to go on lazily and timidly. As it stands the  Economist, on 28 November, was right to evoke those old lines from English class: “God save us always from the innocent and the good”


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