It seems so so long since President Obama’s famous Cairo speech.
On June 4, 2009, speaking at Cairo University, the president, who still has not visited America’s most stalwart ally in the region, Israel, told his listeners that he was turning the page on the acrimony that had previously defined relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
To show how serious he was, he accepted on behalf of America a generous measure of blame for strained relations with Muslim countries, saying, “The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust…. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
That speech was titled, portentously, “A New Beginning.” Now, more than three years later, as American legations across the Middle East find themselves under siege from angry mobs, it appears that Obama was about as successful in rolling back the tides of anti-Americanism as he was in slowing the rise of the oceans and healing the planet. Even Obama’s personal popularity, once stratospheric around the world, has slipped significantly since he took office. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, support for Obama has waned in Europe and Japan but still remains high there (at 80% and 74% respectively). He has done worse in Russia (36% approval), China (38%), and Mexico (42%). And he has done worst of all in the very Muslim countries where he expended so much effort to improve his–and his country’s–image. Obama’s popularity in the Muslim world was never that high to begin with (33% in 2009) and it has fallen to 24%. That is indicative of falling support for the U.S. On Obama’s watch, the percentage expressing favorable attitudes toward the U.S. in the Muslim world has fallen from 25% to 15%.
This is not necessarily a disaster–many of us had argued all along that there is a certain in-built resentment of the U.S. around the world and especially in the Middle East that is very hard to budge, and that what counts more than courting popularity is pursuing policies that are in our national interest. Obama has actually done this in some areas and paid the price in lost approval. Pew reports that the biggest drag on America’s global image is the campaign of drone strikes which Obama has accelerated. “In 17 of 20 countries,” Pew found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.”
Thankfully, Obama has continued the strikes anyway–because they are one of our best tools for fighting terrorists. Implicitly, at least, he seems to be recognizing that foreign policy is not a popularity test.
Still, it must be particularly bitter for Obama to see how unpopular the U.S. remains despite nearly four years of his leadership. Perhaps in his memoirs he might even express some remorse over his relentless criticism of his predecessor for making America so unpopular.