The Region: Obama’s failed popularity strategy


In a cost-benefit analysis of the administration’s apologetic foreign policy posture, the costs to the US far outweigh the expected benefits.

In critiquing the Obama administration, I don’t mean to suggest that it has no reason for wanting to please Arabs and Muslims. It is, after all, one of its highest (sometimes seemingly the highest) priorities. Unfortunately, in practice, this approach has often meant flattering the more extremist forces in those groups and giving short shrift to the more moderate among them.

This strategy isn’t a conspiracy; it just doesn’t correspond with the realities of the region.

The main factors inspiring this effort in terms of foreign policy – in contrast to ideological premises about America itself – are as follows: 1. The hope that Arab governments will help the US extricate itself from Iraq and ensure there is a stable regime there that is friendly to America.

Leaving aside US efforts within Iraq, there is no visible payoff on this issue.

Even relatively moderate (Sunni-led) Arab states are keeping the (Shi’ite- and Kurdish- led) Iraqi regime at arms’ length while still favoring Sunni rebels. Syria continues to back Sunni terrorists in every way and if their effectiveness is declining, that’s not due to Syrian moderation but to US and Iraqi defensive efforts.

So there is no particular dividend that the Obama administration’s policy has gained for the US in Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter.

2. The hope that Arab governments will help the US against Iran, especially in trying to stop Teheran from getting nuclear weapons and, if that fails, containing Iran.

Clearly, some effort is needed here to assure basing rights. Yet here, too, the policy makes little difference. Arab regimes need US protection against Iran and want American weapons for themselves.

No matter what the US says or does, Arab state policies (except for pro-Iran Syria) remain the same: In private, they hope that Iran will somehow be prevented from getting nuclear weapons; in public, they say little and do less.

At the same time, though, Arab states are also intimidated by Iran (especially given their perception that the Obama administration is weak), and worried about internal subversive forces and their rivals portraying them as lapdogs of the West. They also know that nationalist and religious sentiments run high, in part because these same governments have long encouraged them.

Thus, their help will be limited no matter how much Obama tries to persuade them that he is a nice guy, sorry for the past and not too close to Israel.

3. The hope that if sufficiently soothed, flattered and appeased, Arabs and Muslims are less likely to join or support anti- American terrorist groups. Here, no doubt there is some limited success, very limited.

Al-Qaida has been weakened more by US offensive actions and, in some cases, regime repression than a pro-American shift by the population.

People join revolutionary Islamist groups for a variety of reasons but basically because they want the transformation of their own societies by an Islamist revolution. Anti-Americanism is a very secondary factor for the vast majority of these recruits. The key point is that they are against their own governments and accept an Islamist interpretation of the world.

4. The hope that the US can stay out of crises, including Israeli-Palestinian, the struggle over power in Lebanon, the intervention of Syria and Iran backing terrorists in Iraq, of Pakistan backing terrorists in India and others. Obama succeeds in avoiding such entanglement, but the cost is that there are victories for revolutionary Islamists (Hamas entrenches itself in the Gaza Strip; Syria recaptures control over Lebanon; Hizbullah becomes stronger; Iran and Syria can intervene in Iraq and kill Americans there without cost; moderate regimes lose faith in America; etc.). The failure to impose costs on radical states, the openness to engaging Islamists, the posture of weakness and apology makes the radicals more aggressive and confident.

5. There is also some domestic advantage for Obama, who can argue that he has made America (or at least himself) popular and reversed the armed engagements and anti-Americanism that developed during his predecessor’s administration.

AND YET even here, the last fortress of the claim that current US policy makes sense is under assault. According to the latest Pew poll, Arab and Muslim positive views of the US are down. In Egypt, the numbers are even lower than during the administration of George W. Bush. The attitudes toward Obama himself are also extremely low.

This is true not only in the Arab world, but also in Pakistan, where the administration has poured in billions and given virtually uncritical support to a regime that is not all that helpful in fighting anti-American terrorists and eager to help anti-Indian ones. Just 17 percent have a positive view of the US, and only 8% of Obama himself. He’s even less popular than is America as a whole.

And what effect has Obama had in trying to prove the US isn’t really a leader but just one of the guys? The number of people in the world who think that the US is multilateral has gone up only six points, from 26% to 32%. Among those who support the administration, there is an assumption that the whole strategy of apology, empathy, the Cairo speech, the Istanbul speech, the distancing from Israel, the redefinition of the “war on terror” into a narrow “war on al-Qaida” has brought benefits. Yet it is rather difficult to define precisely what those benefits have been.

The costs of this policy are much easier to measure.

A key element in this strategy has been to distance the US from Israel and to bring it closer to Iran, Syria and Islamist groups. Ironically, this has also meant in practice a reduction of support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, pro-Western forces in Lebanon and all the other Arabs who want US protection against the radicals. Perhaps, then, if even the popularity strategy has failed the US should think of a strategy based on such traditional diplomatic concepts as credibility through strength, support for allies, imposing prices on enemies and showing real leadership.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. He blogs at

June 21, 2010 | 2 Comments »

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  1. We can only hope and work for a new Congress, controlled by Conservatives, to keep Obama from doing further harm to this country. There are several Republicans ready to run for the Presidency, who I believe will in turn, seek to overturn this country’s attitude toward Israel.

    According to Ted and others it doesn’t matter who you elect because it’s those damn State Dept. People calling the shots.

  2. We can only hope and work for a new Congress, controlled by Conservatives, to keep Obama from doing further harm to this country. There are several Republicans ready to run for the Presidency, who I believe will in turn, seek to overturn this country’s attitude toward Israel.