For an Administration that started with the premise of improving relations with the “Muslim world,” as President Obama likes to put it, the results of the 2010 Arab Opinion Poll should be deeply disappointing.
Having experienced soaring hopes for the dawning of a new era in U.S.-Arab relations, Arabs are now reacting with bitterness to the fact that no change has taken place. And not only that, but as opinions of the Obama presidency are plummeting across the Middle East, support for the Iranian nuclear program is growing. From a policy, as well as public diplomacy, point of view, this is grim news.
Unrealistic expectations of the Obama presidency lie at the heart of the problem, raised mainly by the President himself, first during the presidential campaign and then in the first six months of his presidency. “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he told university students in Cairo little over a year ago. “One based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Those lofty sentiments have not been reflected in U.S. policy. For the average Arab citizen life has not changed in any measurable way because of the election of President Obama. Indeed, as Obama policy has been to deal with existing regimes no matter how oppressive, it is hard to see how it could be. Furthermore, the poll should also prompt questions about the direction vis-a-vis the Middle East set by the State Department’s Public Diplomacy team under Undersecretary of State Judith McHale.
The 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll was conducted by University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami in conjunction with Zogby International between June 19 and July 20 and included respondents from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon.
The numbers tell a startling story: Arab respondents who described themselves as “hopeful” for the Administration’s Middle East policy fell from 51 percent in 2009 to a mere 16 percent this year. Meanwhile, those who described themselves as “discouraged” ballooned from 15 percent this year to 63 percent. On the other hand, Iran’s nuclear program, even including a nuclear bomb, grew considerably in popularity as 57 percent this year registered support. That compares with 29 percent in 2009. Negative reactions to the program fell from 46 percent to 21 percent.
The international leader most admired was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This seems mainly to be due to his confrontational approach towards Israel over the Israeli interception of the Turkish vessel that, on May 31, attempted to run Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip.
Where are the U.S. public diplomacy tools that could help explain to the Arab population just how dangerous a nuclear-armed Iran would be, for the world, the Middle East, and the Iranian people? Well, those tools have been abandoned in favor of the broadcasting of entertainment and the love affair with new media technology. Reportedly the U.S. Agency for International Development is looking at programs to train young Arabs in the use of social media technology, an initiative with the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Yet, “One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change,” wrote Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in The New York Times recently. Young Arabs and Iranians are among the busiest tweeters and bloggers in the world, but the vast preponderance of the substance of their communications is not political, but social, cultural, and even poetic.
The Iranian elections of last June represented a high point as far as new media potential for political activism was concerned. Since then, however, the crackdown by the Iranian government on activists and journalists has been highly effective. In other words, for change to come to the Middle East and hope to be restored to those who have lost it, a comprehensive, realistic, and consistent U.S. policy is desperately needed.