Monday, June 01, 2009

Obama seeks popularity in the Muslim world

Prof. Barry Rubin (GLORIA, May 17, 2009) asks:

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,
Whose the most popular statesman of all?
Who Cares?

...If President Barack Obama actually succeeds in making himself more popular among Arabs and Muslims, what material advantage would it give the United States? [See below for Prof Rubin's assessment.]

Stephen Collinson, AFP, 1/6/09, explains:

President Barack Obama will journey to the center of Arab-Muslim civilization this week, to begin the daunting task of draining deep mistrust of the United States felt across the Islamic world.

In Egypt on Thursday, Obama will make a personal address to the world's Muslims, harnessing his own ancestral ties to Islam and globalizing his message of change in an speech rich in trademark political ambition.

...Obama targeted reconciliation with Islam and rigorous Middle East diplomacy from his first moments in office.

...This trip's first stop, on Wednesday, will be Saudi Arabia, for talks with King Abdullah, seeking Arab support for US peace efforts. But the highlight will be the speech at the University of Cairo, co-hosted by Al-Azhar University, an ancient hub of Islamic scholarship.

..."I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world," Obama said last week.

...Some analysts predict though Obama may fall short.

...In 2004, a survey by, based at the University of Maryland, found just four percent of Egyptians had a favourable opinion of the United States. A McClatchy/Ipsos poll this month found that only 33 percent of those surveyed in six Arab countries had a favorable opinion of the United States

..."There's nothing Barack Obama could say to Muslims on June 4th that will make the United States popular, and he shouldn't try," said Jon Alterman, of the Center of Strategic and International Studies. "The underlying interests are simply not allied with the policies that many Muslims around the world would like to see the United States pursue."

"We're going to have to agree to disagree, and that's the first task for the president -- to frame US policy in a way that takes some of the passion out of widespread hostility to the United States.

Prof Rubin agrees. If Barack Obama actually succeeds in making himself more popular among Arabs and Muslims, what material advantage would it give the United States? He suggests considering the following points:

--All of these [Islamic] regimes are dictatorships and so popular opinion is of very limited importance.

--Publics are very hostile to America and the West and will not be easily moved by the charm of an American president unless he does things far beyond any possible policy he might follow.

Bashing Israel won't transform this opinion.

--The impressions of U.S. policies and leaders among these groups are mediated by state-controlled media which are hostile for reasons of national or regime interests, and intellectual elites which tend to be carriers of either Arab nationalism or Islamism, world views that have a systematic antagonism to the United States.

--Islamists and radicals such as Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhoods view America in all its varieties and guises as an enemy. No matter what Obama says or does they will deem it a trick. Unless, of course, he gives them concessions in which case they will take them, see him as weak, and give nothing back. That isn't popularity; that's contempt.

--Middle East leaders emphasize a realist, power-oriented model of politics. Obama wanting to be popular is simply incomprehensible to them. At best, they will attribute this to naivete and weakness. Doubting that he will be strong in protecting them they will actually do less for the United States. That isn't popularity; that's fear that you're on the losing side.

So no matter how high Obama gets his popularity in polls-which will be celebrated in the American media and in Washington DC as a great victory-nobody in the region will do more to help him or give him more as a result.

If you need a test experiment for this assertion, think about Europe. Europeans love Obama; Europe is an American ally. European societies are democracies close to America in culture and world view. And yet when Obama asked European countries for cooperation on various issues ranging from economic revival to Afghanistan they gave him nothing.

...International politics isn't high school. Popularity doesn't matter....
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