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0 for 2: Obama's Failed Middle East Policy

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
July 13, 2011
Weekly Standard


How is Obama's policy in the Middle East working at this juncture, two and a half years into the president's term? Two news items reveal the very dismal picture.

The first is a new poll measuring U.S. popularity in the region. It is way down. The Washington Post reports that “favorable ratings of the United States have plummeted in the Middle East, according to a new poll conducted by Zogby International for the Arab American Institute Foundation. In most countries surveyed, favorable attitudes toward the United States dropped to levels lower than they were during the last year of the Bush administration.”

This was not supposed to happen; President Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 was supposed to be the start of a new era. The White House even entitled the speech “A New Beginning.”

The president larded the speech with praise of Islam and quotations from the Koran.  Lines such as these are typical:

“I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum....As the Holy Koran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.'... I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith....I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed....And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

The returns are now in. In Egypt, for example, U.S. popularity was 30 percent in 2009 and has crashed now to 5 percent. No doubt the Obama team is amazed, shocked, and incredulous that favorable views of the United States can possibly be lower under his enlightened leadership than they were in the awful old days of George W. Bush. It is unfortunate that they appear to have no learning curve, and will not be able to absorb the poll data and honestly assess what led to this outcome.

Part of what led to it is simply that expectations of Obama were too high. But, as these quotations from the Cairo speech suggest, it was he who created those expectations—and deliberately so. Part of it is that an apologetic America actually appeals to no one, for friends rely on our strength and enemies have contempt for any weakness.

Part of what led to this outcome is sheer incompetence on the part of the administration. The evidence is too voluminous to cite, but the second news item of the day is illustrative: the complete failure of Monday's Quartet meeting. That session, hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and attended by U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Lady Ashton, and Quartet envoy Tony Blair (plus the customary gaggle of minions), produced nothing. Zero. They could not even agree on an anodyne statement of the sort that usually follows Quartet meetings.

This is a clear failure of American diplomacy, for we organized and have always led the Quartet. We have always drafted Quartet statements, being careful to take the views of others into account and get a consensus. This we did in advance, at the “envoy level,” before the “Quartet Principals” named above (or their predecessors) met. The principals would then change a couple of words and, as the saying goes these days, “take ownership.” The main tasks of American diplomacy were to persuade the Quartet envoys that the draft statement wasn't really just an American document but was fully reflective of their brilliance and wisdom; and then to persuade the principals that the draft was just a draft and that the minor word changes they inserted changed everything and made the document new and significant.

This is called diplomacy, or, better yet, multilateral diplomacy. One recalls that this was supposed to be the Obama forte, while the unilateralists of the Bush era had shown contempt for it and failed at it. But the Obama team cannot seem to get it right any more than the president himself can seem to establish warm and effective personal relations with foreign leaders.

And, of course, underlying the Quartet failure is the larger failure in handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Obama years are the first time in decades that there have been no negotiations at all, and the first time the United States has managed to make both the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership equally unhappy and equally nervous about U.S. policy. This is even handedness, in a way, but not the kind that wins many prizes—or leads to peace.

The Obama administration had two goals in the Middle East: to warm up America's image and popularity after the ice age they believed Bush had represented, and to achieve progress in the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians. Thirty months in, they are 0 for 2.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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