Posted by on June 01, 2012 in Blog

When President Obama first came into office he promised this country that some fundamental and drastic changes would take place. He also promised the same scope of change in his Cairo speech to Arabs and Muslims across the globe, and because of the unprecedented gesture, people believed him. Today Arabs and Muslims, especially those in the Middle East, are still waiting for that fundamental change to come. There is overwhelming consensus among people in the region that President Obama has not delivered on promises made and hopes raised three years ago in Cairo. Earlier this week at the U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough had a counter message: that U.S. policy changes in the Middle East were fostering a better relationship between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim world. The purpose of his speech was to articulate what the Administration views as U.S. accomplishments in the region, but he completely ignored perhaps one of the single most important issues to people in the region: Palestine.

Less than a year ago, AAI polled six Arab countries and found that, under Obama, the U.S.’s favorable ratings had plummeted. Surprisingly enough, the numbers were lower than they were when Bush was in office. The dismal numbers were not completely due to Obama’s policies, however. Continued and residual effects from eight years of failed Middle East policy under Bush could not be reversed. But Obama bore the brunt of negative opinion partly because people in the Middle East expected a lot more from him. The only area the respondents said the U.S. could be helpful is by solving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. McDonough and the Administration are well aware that nothing has happened on that front so McDonough’s speech focused on “areas in particular where the relationship between the United States and this [Middle East] region is changing.” 

First he referenced the troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that the end of the wars will constitute “a tremendous opportunity for the United States and our partners in the region to focus on a new, affirmative agenda.” No one can blame Obama for Iraq, but with the country still in relative chaos, a near dictatorial leader in power, and sectarian violence and Iranian influence, the U.S. withdrawal hardly sets the stage for a “new, affirmative agenda.” And let’s be clear, we are not pulling out of Iraq because we want to reset relations with Arabs and Muslims. 

McDonough also mentioned the Arab Spring particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya: “We stood on the side of change from the beginning of these events,” he said. It is true that the U.S. gets a bad reputation for backing Arab dictators, but once the momentum shifted on the side of the protestors, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen beame no brainers. In terms of Libya, however, the U.S. did play an active role, for better or for worse. Libya aside though, the U.S. cannot take credit for encouraging any major change when it merely adapted to events already set in motion by others on the ground.

Among a few other areas, McDonough mentioned educational programs between the U.S. and Arab and Muslim countries. These programs, financed by the State Department, are great in terms of building bridges and the Administration should be commended for sponsoring them. Still, there is no tangible evidence that the U.S. approach to the region has fundamentally changed, and the fact that McDonough’s speech neglected to address Palestine directly shows that on one of the most essential issues at the core of U.S.-Arab relations, the Administration has nothing to report. There is a clear disconnect between the Administration’s views of the successes in the region and the expectations coming from the region.  

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