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The US and the Arab World: The Failures of Engagement

Commentary, 18 September 2012
Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
The recent protests in the Middle East may have been sparked by the anti-Islamic film produced in the US, but Middle Eastern opinion has been shaped to a much larger degree by US foreign policy rather than its cinematography.

The recent protests in the Middle East may have been sparked by the anti-Islamic film produced in the US, but Middle Eastern opinion has been shaped to a much larger degree by US foreign policy rather than its cinematography.

Obama in Cairo

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, expressed a hope over the weekend that the wave of demonstrations outside US embassies throughout the Middle East would 'spark off a new Islamic awakening'. That's too ambitious; the demonstrations are an expression of immediate anger, and are unlikely to endure. Nevertheless, the riots are an indication of just how easy it is to mobilise the Arab street to anti-American initiatives. Few of those who destroyed US diplomatic property watched the movie which supposedly offended their sensitivities. When the demonstrations began nobody knew who actually produced the movie, or whether all of the film had been released; these questions still remain unclear today. But facts are always unimportant in such cases: the idea that someone either Jewish or Christian produced a movie which contained 'obscenities' against Islam was enough. The favourite chant of crowds in Egypt - 'Obama, Obama, there are still a billion Osamas' - was an indication that differing cinematic tastes was not their main concern. All in all, the sad episode acts as a reminder of an American failure to persuade Arab nations that America can be their friend or, at the very least, is not their automatic foe.

The failure is surprising, since few US presidents came to office better equipped to re-engage with the Middle East than Mr Obama. During his election campaign, he elevated the task of improved relations with the Arab world to one of his top foreign policy priorities. He was also voted into power by an electorate tired of Middle Eastern adventures and eager to see US troops extricated from the region. And he bears the middle name of Hussein, a reminder of an ancestry vastly different from that of all his White House predecessors.

New Beginnings

So, when early in his presidency Mr Obama flew to Cairo to make a historic speech in which he appealed for 'a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world', few doubted his sincerity. For, as Obama put it, he had 'known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed'.

Yet, as his first presidential term draws to a close, the lack of improvement in America's standing with within the global Muslim community is palpable. The evidence does not come from the demonstrators who now besiege US embassies - after all, these people represent only a fraction of Muslims - but, rather, from public opinion surveys completed well before the current controversy erupted. According to July surveys by the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, only 19 per cent of ordinary Egyptians have a positive view of the US, compared to 22 per cent who claimed to be favourable to America before Obama came to power. The same pattern is replicated elsewhere in the Arab world: Obama's America scores marginally worse than when George W Bush was president, a man frequently caricatured as Islam's bogeyman.

In fairness to Mr Obama, he warned from the start that changing his country's image 'cannot happen overnight'. And many of the events which helped defeat the president's efforts were beyond his control. Obama inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also had to face the consequences of the Arab Spring revolutions, while dealing with a uniquely difficult Israeli government. Still, Obama's own errors compounded the problem.

His first mistake was committed right at the beginning of his presidency, when he abandoned George W Bush's democracy-promotion agenda, paradoxically at precisely the moment when this was becoming relevant. During her first trip to Cairo in March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed a reporter's inquiry about the poor human rights record of the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak by saying that 'we all have room for improvement' and calling the Egyptian leader and his wife 'friends of my family'. Meanwhile, the White House slashed aid to Egypt's civil society NGOs, and lifted an informal ban on visits by President Mubarak to Washington. The US president also toured the Gulf, where he accepted and proudly wore on his chest every jewelled decoration bestowed upon him by local monarchs. Obama started his re-engagement by embracing precisely those leaders regarded by the 'Arab street' as dinosaurs, rather than the ordinary people whose opinion the US president allegedly sought to influence.

The Arab Spring's Influence

The US hoped that all these embarrassing details would be forgotten when Obama unceremoniously dumped President Mubarak, proclaiming his support for 'change'. Washington also congratulated itself for being the first power to open communication channels to the Muslim Brotherhood, who are now ruling in Egypt. Yet America's efforts went unrewarded. Secular, liberal political forces in Egypt felt betrayed when the US ignored them at precisely the moment when they were relevant. The Egyptian military - which stuck by Mubarak - was stunned by Washington's about-face and even more shocked by the pressure which the US put on the generals to relinquish power as quickly as possible. The Muslim Brotherhood which benefitted from all this is hardly like to become America's ally. At best it may not consider Washington as an enemy, an important achievement if it comes about, but not one which will be translated into particular diplomatic warmth. So, for different reasons, both the generals and the politicians in Cairo are now disdainful of the US.

More significantly, the Egyptian episode spooked other Arab regimes which realised that decades of standing by the US in the Middle East counted for little. The result was that, far from promoting change, America's behaviour persuaded other Arab governments to dig in. Saudi Arabia's decision to send troops into neighbouring Bahrain in order to crush demonstrations was at least partly influenced by this realisation; the political transition in Yemen may have also taken longer than it should have done as a result.

The same lose-lose situation applies to America's relations with Israel. President Barack Obama came into office with grand ambitions to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However, he annoyed everyone, and for no purpose: when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to budge, Mr Obama confronted him but then dropped the 'initiative' altogether. The result, not only lower ratings in the Arab world, but also in Israel, where the administration is regarded as the most unfriendly, by the Netanyahu Administration, since the Jewish state's foundation. 

Mission Impossible

Ultimately, two fallacies damaged US efforts to burnish its image in the Middle East. The first is a persistent failure to realise that a message which seems logical in Washington is perceived very differently in the region. Dumping old, now useless allies may be good strategy, yet it is also duplicitous. Offering an 'extended hand' to Iran may be a useful slogan, but in a conspiracy-prone Middle East it is interpreted the US attempting to expand its regional influence without consulting other regional actors. The speedy US military withdrawal from Iraq may be an Obama achievement, but this is viewed in the Middle East as an American defeat which left behind a Shia-dominated Iraqi government. And repeatedly crowing about the killing of Osama Bin Laden may be doing wonders for Mr Obama's Commander-in-Chief credentials back home, yet is regarded by most Arabs as tasteless.

The second problem with Obama's re-engagement strategy is that it promised far too much, when the reality is that best the US can ever hope to achieve is to mitigate, rather than dispel its negative image. Many Arabs are well-disposed to the American way of life: if the US were to offer free immigration visas to anyone who cared to apply, US embassies in the Middle East would be assailed by far larger crowds than the demonstrators besieging them today. And some of those who regularly shout 'death to America' wear jeans and baseball caps.

Still many pious Arabs view the US as the promoter of a hedonistic, sexually-promiscuous consumer society which negates Islamic values. And, rightly or wrongly, the US is also viewed as upholder of a status quo in which Arab nations are kept poor, despite the wealth of their natural resources. As a result of this amorphous, hostile feeling, some basic facts are forgotten.  It is not true that the US benefits from Middle Eastern oil; Asian countries primarily China, are the main beneficiaries. Nor is it true that the US is solely anti-Islamic. The Chinese government kills Muslims in Xinjiang and had recently restricted the freedom of Xinjiang's residents to mark the month of Ramadan. The Russian government has been engaged in a brutal fight in Muslim Chechnya for years. Yet all these real tragedies for Muslims prompt no demonstrations outside Russia's Middle Eastern embassies, while the production of an idiotic movie without the knowledge of the US government attracts the wrath of the Islamic world. That's the price the world's sole superpower has to pay for decades of dominating the Middle East and for almost seamlessly taking on the colonial baton from Britain and France.

Still, matters could be worse, at least President Obama promises to persevere with efforts to address this cycle of suspicion and animosity. Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger for the US presidency, has no views on this matter.


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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