In early 2009, Barack Obama made a speech in Cairo entitled ‘A New Beginning’. Billed as a new Democratic president’s attempt to reshape the relations between the US and the Middle East after eight years of a fiercely interventionist foreign policy masterminded by George Bush, the speech was largely welcomed by the Arab world.
“I know there are many — Muslim and non-Muslim — who question whether we can forge this new beginning,” Obama said, speaking in Al Azhar University, one of the region’s most celebrated centres of learning. “Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort — that we are fated to disagree, and civilisations are doomed to clash.
“Many more are simply sceptical that real change can occur. There’s so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country — you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.”
Obama’s speech came against the backdrop of US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, which not only brought relations between America and this region to an all-time low, but also won domestic opprobrium and burdened the national exchequer. According to research carried out at Brown University, a decade of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have cost the US and its allies an estimated $4 trillion, with around 300,000 — military and civilian — deaths.
The reality is that the high hopes that the Arab world had for Obama after his Cairo speech back in 2009 have largely dissipated. Recent research carried out by the US-based Pew Research Centre, which measured global attitudes towards the Democrat incumbent over the past three years, prove that he has largely failed to live up to expectations. In terms of the five countries in the Muslim world — Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan — that have been regularly polled by Pew since 2008, all of them have shown a steady drop in confidence over Obama’s leadership.
In Pakistan, for example, where drone attacks, cross-border raids and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden have complicated the US relationship with what was once a key strategic ally, confidence in Obama now sits at seven percent — exactly the same result as George Bush garnered at the end of his term in 2008. Respondents from the five nations universally preferred Obama to his predecessor, with the gap being widest in Egypt (42 percent saying that they had a lot/some confidence in Obama compared to eleven percent for Bush), Jordan (31 percent to seven percent) and Turkey (33 percent to two percent).
The biggest drop in opinion over Obama’s presidency has come in Egypt, which is down by thirteen percent over the three years, followed by Turkey (nine percent) and Jordan (also nine percent).
So what has caused the breakdown in the relationship? One factor has been that despite all the promises, US foreign policy has remained largely the same in the period since Obama was elected. While the US has now pulled out of Iraq, as promised, the war in Afghanistan has been widened due to a ‘surge’ — an additional 33,000 troops that have only just been drawn down. In addition, a promise to close Guantanamo Bay — the prison on US sovereign territory in Cuba that houses prisoners that the US suspects to be linked to Al Qaeda — has not been met.
But of more concern will be the US reaction to the Arab Spring. Some observers felt that America was too tied to dictators that were overthrown last year. In particular, the US, along with other Western powers, aligned itself strategically with former president Hosni Mubarak, even during the face of the nationwide protests that eventually toppled him. Despite the fact that Obama eventually went against counsel from his advisers and telephoned Mubarak, advising him to step down, American handling of the 2011 revolutions often seemed to be behind the curve.
In Libya, the US won a degree of credit by acting swiftly in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s move to crush the rebellion focused around the western city of Benghazi. Obama’s role in constructing a small coalition that swiftly implemented a no-fly zone may have saved thousands of civilian lives, and contributed heavily towards Gaddafi’s downfall. However, the recent death of the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, has been politically damaging, especially as Republicans have tried to position the incident as a failure by the State Department to act on advice.