U.S. Influence in Middle East Hits New Low Under Obama: View

One reason the U.S. is scrambling to find a compromise that would spare it the need to veto Palestinian membership in the United Nations is the fear of sparking a new round of anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

Great powers wield influence in the world as a result of being admired, respected or feared. The U.S. is now suffering from an unprecedented loss of influence in this important region because all three indicators are at an all-time low.

In truth, the U.S. has never been wildly popular in the Middle East. But distrust hit new highs during the George W. Bush administration, largely because of the invasion of Iraq; the decision during Bush’s first term to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian issue; the illegal treatment of detainees; and the unfair perceptions that the war on terrorism was really a war on Islam and that Bush’s policies were incompatible with Arab aspirations. Taken together, polls by Zogby International (July, 2011) and the Pew Research Center (May, 2011) indicate that in 2008 less than 25 percent of respondents in a broad range of Arab countries had a favorable view of the U.S.

The hope was that the election of Barack Obama would change all that. And from the beginning of his administration, Obama made reconciliation with the Muslim world one of his highest foreign policy priorities. In his June 4, 2009, speech at Cairo University, he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” based on common interests, respect and principles.

Given those sentiments, it is troubling in the extreme that, some 2 1/2 years later, the U.S. is actually more unpopular in the Middle East than it was in the last year of the Bush administration. According to the Pew poll, the U.S.’s favorability rating in Egypt dropped to 20 percent in 2011 from 22 percent in 2008, and in Jordan, in that same period, fell to 13 percent from 19 percent. The Zogby poll had similar results.

Views of Obama personally are also starkly negative. In the Pew poll, only 35 percent of Egyptians and 28 percent of Jordanians expressed confidence in him, and majorities disapproved of his handling of issues they care about, such as political change in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Afghanistan. Zogby found that in five of six Arab countries surveyed, at most 11 percent of respondents said that Obama has met the expectations he set in the Cairo speech.

Even worse, Obama’s unpopularity has been accompanied by a sense that the U.S. can be defied with impunity, as doing so will have no negative consequences. The most recent example is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to ignore U.S. objections and proceed with a UN Security Council resolution recognizing a Palestinian state -- even though the U.S. threatens to veto it, and even though such a veto would endanger Obama’s ability to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

But Abbas is not alone. While Obama has called on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to step down, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his survival and that of his government to the U.S., received Assad’s emissaries and publicly urged Syrian demonstrators to not “sabotage” their country.

On Aug. 18, al-Maliki went even further, stating in a speech that “Zionists and Israel are the first and biggest beneficiaries” of the democratic revolutions threatening autocracies throughout the Arab world. This mimicked Iranian statements on Syria. Although there are some indications that al-Maliki is changing his position, until now, when faced with a choice of saying nothing, siding with the Americans or agreeing with Iran, it seems he felt that heeding Tehran was the safest course.

Administration officials have asserted that recent polls still reflect region-wide opposition to the Bush administration, not Obama. It is fair to point out that Bush left his successor with a deep hole to climb out of, but that is not the whole story. Although we don’t accept the idea that simple polling can reflect the complicated emotions U.S. policy generates in the region, polling data is a significant indicator.

In our view, there are three main reasons for the drop in support for the U.S. First and foremost, Arab commentators generated unrealistic expectations after Obama’s election for what any president can do for the Middle East.

Second, in the one case where the West could have provided unique assistance to the Arab Spring -- that is, air power to help the rebels in Libya defeat Muammar Qaddafi -- the Obama administration limited its involvement in favor of supporting Britain and France. And third, with respect to both the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the Arab Spring, the U.S. president has generally made grand policy announcements but provided little follow-through.

There is no magic solution that will restore U.S. influence in this volatile region. One thing is certain: Promising more than you can deliver is no way to start. As Abbas has noted, it was Obama who first mentioned the goal of Palestine becoming a member of the UN by September 2011. Rather, it is the accumulation of small successes over a considerable time that will have the best chance of restoring U.S. standing.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.