President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech was designed to help improve our image in the Arab world. It won’t work. Ultimately, if we want to improve our relations with the Arab world, we would need to change the substance of American policy in the region. Rhetoric cannot overcome facts on the ground.
Recent polls show continued skepticism about American policy despite the personal popularity of President Obama. The negative image of American power in the Arab world is a function of durable policy choices that command broad, bipartisan consensus.
Arabs generally disapprove of the Iraq war, but Obama has committed the United States to maintain a 50,000-strong “residual force” even after we remove “combat forces.” Many Arabs will see this as continued occupation.
Obama is committed to expanding the war in Afghanistan, which continues to convey the image of America as an occupier of Muslim lands.
Obama has stepped up Predator strikes in Pakistan, many of which continue to result in harm to civilians in the face of public opposition by the Pakistani government. This policy seems to confirm the perception that the United States is indifferent to causing pain and suffering to Muslim civilians and is unwilling to respect the sovereignty of Muslim governments.
Though Obama has taken an unprecedented hard line against the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, he has neither demanded their dismantlement nor threatened to cut off foreign and military aid to Israel. In the Arab world, this will continue to be seen as unconditional support for Israel.
The president has condemned Iran’s moves toward the development of nuclear weapons but has not asked for Israel to destroy its nuclear arsenal.
And although Obama has pledged to promote democracy and human rights, we continue to support undemocratic countries with poor human rights records like Egypt and Saudi Arabia – the two Arab countries he is visiting this week – with financial assistance and arms sales.
President George W. Bush’s cowboy antics and his fondness for Christian rhetoric were only a small part of the reason for our deep unpopularity in the region. Much more significant was the fact that much of American policy toward the Arab world is at odds with the preferences and aspirations of most Arabs.
The problem is that there are very good reasons why we are pursuing the policies we are pursuing. And indeed, none of the issues listed above are particularly controversial here at home. Our unpopularity in the Arab world is a structural consequence of durable strategic choices.
Obama has a reputation as a stunning wordsmith. His supporters swoon over his use of rhetoric, and his opponents see his gifts in this regard as the reason he was able to “con” the American public into electing him. In short, friend and foe alike agree that Mr. Obama’s use of language is a key element of his political skills. But this assessment is both overstated and irrelevant in terms of relations with the Arab world.
Even if Obama were capable of feats of magic through his use of language, are his interpreters? Obama cannot speak directly to the Arab world. He speaks through translators, with his words parsed and interpreted by often unfriendly editors, commentators, and pundits.
More importantly, Obama’s gifts are overstated because what made him popular was not how he spoke during the 2008 electoral campaign, but what he said. He consistently appealed to our better instincts, speaking of hope and a renewal of American politics to transcend partisanship. It was a winning message not because of his sonorous tones and well-constructed prose. It was a winning message because after over a decade of smear and fear, of divide and rule, it was what Americans longed for.
What Arabs long for is an end to American military operations in the Arab world and an end to American support for Israel and for Arab dictatorships. Obama can’t, won’t, and probably shouldn’t promise any of those things.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project. A slightly different version of this essay — written before Obama’s speech was delivered — appeared in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun as “Even Obama Can’t Smooth Over U.S.-Arab Divide.”