Is President Obama Weak in the Eyes of Arab Leaders?

Is President Obama Weak in the Eyes of Arab Leaders?

Neoconservatives are likely to be wrong on any number of issues. But there is one critique of theirs that, somewhat to my dismay, has struck me as more compelling than I would have originally hoped. There is an argument to be made that the United States is weaker – and by this, I mean less admired, less respected, and more likely to be perceived as irrelevant – than it was under the Bush administration. It is difficult to establish causality here, since the original cause was President Bush’s failed policies. We are still paying the price for those failures today.

That said, there are some things we do know. According to recent polling, the United States, under Obama, has lower favorability ratings in several Arab countries than it did in the final years of the Bush administration. It was possible, and in some cases fairly easy, to separate Bush from the United States. Arabs seemed to understand that his policies did not necessarily reflect anything true or essential about America’s character. Moreover, those of us who strongly opposed Bush policy told our Arab (or Latin American or European) friends that it was just a matter of time before America regained a sense of prudence.

As I’ve written before, there is little I can now say to my Arab colleagues. We all got what we wished for (even the Muslim Brotherhood was rooting for Obama) – someone who seemed one of the more brilliant, inspiring, and unique American politicians in recent memory. He had a Muslim name, a Muslim family, lived in the Muslim world, and seemed to have an appreciation for the place of grievance in Arab life. What many Arabs have taken away from this is that the problem with U.S. foreign policy is a structural one. Because even with a “good” president, American foreign policy, as they see it, is quite bad. In short, the U.S. is now irredeemable in a way it never would have been under a President McCain. 

Moving on to the neoconservative critique, the argument, as far as I understand it, is that if you go around talking nice, apologizing, and going on about engagement, then this somehow invites bad behavior. Autocrats will take advantage of you. I don’t buy this particular line, but I do think there’s something to be said for Obama’s perceived lack of “toughness” on the international stage. By toughness, I don’t mean projection of power, bluster, or the over-reliance on the American military. I mean more foreign policy “ideology,” the projection of a clear, semi-consistent set of principles and beliefs, and the willingness to consistently articulate them to the international community. And once they're articulated, to stand behind them. 

The week before the recent Egyptian elections, the State Department called for “fair” and “credible” polls. In response, the Egyptian government, traditionally the second largest recipient of US aid, had the gall to stage-manage what was quite possibly the most rigged election in Egyptian history. In the past, as I argue here, Egypt would at least pretend, allowing a semblance of competition. But, this time, the Mubarak regime didn’t even have the decency of playing along with the charade (US pretends it cares about Egyptian democracy. Egypt pretends too). This suggests a certain level of Egyptian disrespect toward the Obama administration.

Issandr El Amrani, in a new policy brief notes, “the unwillingness of Egypt to show even token consideration for U.S. democracy promotion goals.” When the ruling party, presumably a close ally of the US, wins 209 out of 211 seats in the first round, despite our public calls for a “credible” election, it suggests a perception that people can both defy and disrespect the U.S. and get away with it.  As much as I hesitate to say it, that election result would have never happened under Bush, at least in his 2004-5 guise. People hated Bush but at least he was sufficiently frightening to instill a sense of prudence (however brief) among Arab autocrats.