President Obama’s first half year in office was singularly focused on reviving America’s desultory standing in the Muslim world. Last week marked the first anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech — his widely heralded address “to the Muslim world” — which was intended as the culmination of a series of important steps. These included:
- Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell — an Arab-American who was viewed with trepidation by the traditional pro-Israel community — as his Middle East peace envoy;
- Obama’s rhetorical outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran (in his inaugural address, his first television interview as president with Al-Arabiyya, and his March 2009 Nowruz video message); and
- Obama’s initial cultivation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government, reflected in his April 2009 visit to Istanbul and his high-profile address to Turkey’s parliament, the Grand National Assembly.
These steps, reinforced by the Cairo speech, raised expectations about the course of U.S. policy on a range of issues that matter to the Muslim world. But, less than a week after Obama delivered his Cairo speech, his vaunted outreach to the Muslim world began to unravel. The Islamic Republic’s presidential election on June 12, 2009 threw Obama’s Iran policy not just into conceptual confusion — it was already there, as we pointed out in our May 24, 2009 Op Ed in the New York Times — but into deep political disarray, from which it has never recovered. Indeed, this week, with the passage of a new sanctions resolution against Iran in the United Nations Security Council, Obama will consolidate his retreat to a George W. Bush-like position of thinly veiled support for regime change and a demand that Tehran suspend uranium enrichment.
With regard to the Middle East peace process, Obama has proven no more willing to sustain any meaningful unpleasantness in his dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — over settlements or anything else — than George W. Bush had been in his dealings with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Predictably, this posture has neutered Mitchell’s diplomatic efforts.
And now, Obama is badly damaging his relations with Turkey — first by his insulting rejection of Turkey’s successful efforts, along with Brazil, to broker a compromise with Iran over the nuclear issue, and then by refusing to criticize Israel over its attack on Turkish ships in international waters. Of course, Obama’s position on the Israeli attack against the Turkish ships flows directly from his supine deference to Israel over the siege of Gaza, which has become the most vivid manifestation of America’s unwillingness to require even minimal contributions from Israel to improving the regional situation.
Obama inspired many with his eloquent call in the Cairo speech for acts of civil disobedience to gain basic civil and human rights for Palestinians, along the lines of the civil rights movement that brought down legal segregation and institutionalized discrimination against Americans of African origin. But now that Palestinians and people from many other nations are working to realize that vision, Obama chooses to stand with the Bull Connors of today’s Middle East, who use force every day to deny Palestinians’ rights. (If Obama wanted to analogize disenfranchised African Americans in the Jim Crow American South to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, he needs to be prepared to extend that analogy to its logical conclusion where Israel is concerned.)
At this point, Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has been reduced to drone attacks against “terrorist” targets in Pakistan — attacks which are inflicting substantial collateral damage on both Pakistani civilians and American interests. Obama’s drone attacks are killing an appallingly high number of non-combatants; as a result, they are also stimulating a new terrorist threat to the American homeland from the Pakistani Taliban, epitomized by the “Times Square” bomber — who is the son of a Pakistani general. This is something that not even George W. Bush accomplished.
When we visited the University of Tehran in earlier this year, we were struck by how many of the students we met had read not just one, but both of Obama’s books. (Both are readily available in Persian translation; a fair number of the American studies graduate students we met had read them in English.) We were also struck by how much hope both young and not-so-young Iranians — and people in other parts of the Muslim world that we visited during the last year — invested in the idea of Obama as a different sort of American President who would take U.S. policy on issues that mattered to them in a more positive direction.
For many Middle Easterners, the growing perception that Barack Hussein Obama — who purposefully used his full name in the Cairo speech — has turned out to be just like any other American President on issues that matter to them is more than a profound disappointment. This perception will prompt growing numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere to write off the United States as a country that can deliver for them.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 8 June 2010 under a Creative Commons license.