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The Continuing Education of Barack Obama

Alana rightly called attention to a new poll which shows America’s favorability rating across the Arab world has plummeted and that President Obama’s favorable ratings are 10 percent or less. In Egypt, for example, the favorable/unfavorable split for America is 5 percent v. 95 percent, while three percent agree with the policies pursued by the president as against 86 percent who disagree.

The United States under President Bush was more popular in the Arab world than it is under President Obama.

Now isn’t that a twist? The one thing that was supposed to be a virtual given is that President Obama would – by virtue of his background, personality, and policies – improve America’s standing among Arab nations. George W. Bush, it was said by progressives, was a unilateralist, a war-monger, too pro-Israel, too pro-Freedom Agenda. The Obama presidency would be the balm. Obama would travel to the Arab world and apologize for America’s past sins, whether in 1953 in Iran or 2003 in Iraq. He would de-emphasize human rights and do away with “bullying.”  Obama would take into account Arab concerns. He would apply greater pressure on Israel. He would connect with the Arab street.

With that in mind, let’s return for a moment to the president’s June 4, 2009 “New Beginning” speech in Cairo. We were assured it would be “momentous,” “groundbreaking,” “epic,” and historic.” It would fulfill, in Obama’s words, his campaign commitment to “remake” relations with the Muslim world. Yet now, two-and-a-half years into the Obama presidency, what do we find? Unprecedented disenchantment with American foreign policy.

One could argue, with some justification, that this underscores the Obama administration’s ineptness. It has, after all, taken what was one of the president’s alleged strengths and converted it to a weakness. But there is a larger point to be drawn from the collapsing prestige of Obama in the Arab world.

When you run for president, the problems seem much simpler to manage than when you actually are president. Those who have the responsibility to govern find the world is less tidy, the conflicts more intractable, the solutions less obvious, and the pressures more intense than they imagined. The world is not as easy to shape as hot wax. And so it turns out it’s a good deal easier to give a speech in which you say you’ll cut the deficit in half, or keep unemployment below 8 percent, or eliminate earmarks, than it is to actually do these things.

“I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” Glendower says in Henry IV Part One. “Why, so can I, or so can any man,” Hotspur replies. “But will they come when you do call for them?”

What Obama is finding out — what most of us who have worked in the White House sooner or later find out — is that those whom you call for don’t always come; that to offer a solution as a commentator or candidate is easier than to actually implement one; and that to promise you will remake relations with the Arab and Muslim world isn’t the same thing as actually remaking relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

The education of Barack Obama continues. He won’t be the first person to have learned these lessons the hard way, nor the last.


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