Obama’s Numbers in the Arab World

America’s appeal is declining in the Middle East, even in countries typically considered to be allies.

President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Egypt, June 4, 2009
President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Egypt, June 4, 2009 (White House/Chuck Kennedy)

I’m a big fan of Dr Marc Lynch’s work. In addition to being considered a respected professor in a top-tier American university (George Washington University), he is also one of the best versed in Middle Eastern culture and knowledgeable about virtually every issue in the Arab world. So whenever Dr Lynch writes a post about Arab public opinion or has something to say about American-Islamic relations, I tend to read it very quickly.

Such was the case last Thursday, when Lynch devoted a post to the dwindling appeal of President Barack Obama in the eyes of ordinary Muslims. Technically, the Brookings Institution sponsored the poll and conducted the project, but it’s people like Lynch (not to mention Steve Walt and Tom Ricks) that make sense of the data and try to put it into some perspective.

For a full look at Brookings’ results, click here (PDF). I highly recommend that you take a look at the raw figures, because it gives us a sense of what issues still ring true in the hearts of Arabs. But if you just want to get to the nuts-and-bolts, the results can be best described as quantification of America’s declining appeal, even in countries that are considered to be American allies. The poll not only reveals an unfortunate American decline in popularity, but also the deep frustrations that many Arabs hold over America’s inability to meet its promises and commitments.

President Barack Obama’s sliding poll numbers are not exactly earth shattering. In the opening months of his administration, he overextended himself to the Arab world by promising too much and delivering too little. His optimism rather than his actual policy quickly gained momentum in the Middle East and drove hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world into actually thinking that Obama had the diplomatic smarts and ability to solve some of the region’s most difficult problems. No American president since Jimmy Carter has had success in resolving disputes in the Middle East yet Obama was somehow considered the “savior” of Arab grievances. He could pressure the Israelis into a settlement with the Palestinians; he could thwart Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to violence; he could withdraw all American soldiers from Iraq; and he could engage the Muslim public at the exact same time. That’s too much for one man (or woman) to handle.

Arab opinion on Iran’s nuclear program is a bit interesting. On the one hand, it seems to imply that an Iranian nuclear capability would be beneficial to Arabs as well, for it could heighten Muslim pride and force the United States to look at the region with more caution. This may also help explain why there is a decline in those who want the United States and the international community to pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions. Why risk another confrontation, they may be wondering?

A vast majority (77 percent) in the Arab world also believe that Iran has a right to enrich its own uranium. But this figure shouldn’t be taken out of context. The numbers may reveal more about the north-south divide than Iran’s appeal in the Middle East. The right to possess an indigenous enrichment program has been one of the most contentious topics between established powers and those states that are trying to assert themselves. It also happens to be the one issue that unifies the developing countries. By and large, Arabs fit into this developing world narrative.

It’s also interesting to see how the Egyptian population is largely disconnected from the Iranian nuclear stalemate. As the survey says, only 16 percent of Egyptians support greater international support (sanctions, military action) on Tehran. I wonder how much this has to do with Egypt’s geographical proximity to Iran, or Egypt’s declining stature in the Arab world at large?

Besides Iran, most of the numbers in the survey are only a confirmation of what many in the United States and in Arab capitals already believe. Obama’s inability to make any headway in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is killing him in the polls, and America’s image is suffering badly in the eyes of Arabs as well. As long as the occupation is ongoing and Israeli settlements continue, the United States will be just as much of a disappointment in the Middle East as Israel.