Quick: what was Barack Obama elected to do? Save the economy, sure. Give everyone health care, sure. But that’s not all. For many of his most passionate supporters, Obama was elected to restore America’s reputation in the world.
He’s largely failed. Yes, the United States is today somewhat more popular in Europe than it was in the bad old Bush days. In Britain, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, America’s favorability rating has jumped from 53 percent in 2008 to 60 percent today. In Germany, it has surged from 31 percent to 52 percent. But even with those boosts, the U.S. remains more than 20 points less popular than it was at the turn of the millennium. And in the Muslim world, where hopes for Obama were greatest, America is as loathed as ever. In Bush’s final year, America’s approval rating in Turkey stood at 12 percent. Now it is 15 percent. In Egypt, where Obama gave his famed Cairo speech in early 2009, America’s favorability has dropped 3 points, from 22 percent to 19 percent. In both Jordan and Pakistan, it’s dropped from 19 percent to 12 percent.
Yet by conventional benchmarks, Obama’s Middle East policy has been quite successful. He’s killed Osama bin Laden and many other top al Qaeda leaders. With Europe’s help, he’s imposed crushing sanctions on Iran. He’s successfully withdrawn troops from Iraq. According to polls, foreign policy is among his greatest political strengths.
Why have Obama’s policies apparently succeeded in the greater Middle East while failing among the region’s people? Partly because he’s been blessed with even more unpopular enemies. No matter how much Muslims dislike the United States, al Qaeda’s barbaric agenda holds little appeal. And while Iran’s leaders once enjoyed some regional street cred for their opposition to Israel and the United States, the regime’s 2009 repression of the Green Movement plus its support for Syria’s murderous Bashar al-Assad have sent its favorability ratings plunging. In 2006, according to the Arab American Institute, 82 percent of Moroccans and 85 percent of Saudis viewed Iran favorably. By last year, those numbers had dropped to 14 percent and 6 percent respectively.
The second reason for Obama’s success is that governments don’t always listen to their publics. Obama’s drone policy—which has killed many top al Qaeda officials—is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where it has been employed the most. But it’s not as unpopular among Pakistan’s leaders as it is among Pakistan’s people. And the Pakistani government can’t do that much about it anyway.
Similarly, Europe’s governments are following Obama’s lead—and imposing harsh sanctions on Iran—not because their publics demand it, but because Europe’s leaders are afraid that if they don’t impose severe sanctions, America or Israel will attack, thus rendering them irrelevant. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is pumping the increased oil that helps America and Europe pressure Iran, not because ordinary Saudis lie awake at night worrying about Iranian power, but because the kingdom’s unelected monarchs do.
So were liberals wrong to believe that it mattered how Middle Easterners felt about the United States? Not exactly. The more the Arab Spring succeeds in fostering free elections, the more public hostility to the United States will shape Arab policy toward the United States. The leading indicator is Turkey, where the shift from de facto military rule to an increasingly populist political order has produced growing defiance of the United States. Something similar is likely in Egypt, where American influence is likely to recede as the military’s influence does, because elected governments will be less willing to defy their people.
Truly changing America’s image in the Middle East would have required shifts in policy—both toward Israel and in America’s antiterror war—too dramatic for Obama to seriously contemplate. Instead, he has pursued a Middle East policy relatively similar to his predecessor’s, just with less hubris and greater subtlety. The benefits are evident today; the costs harder to discern. But the liberals who backed Obama in 2008 because they believed in the importance of changing America’s image among ordinary Muslims weren’t wrong. In fact, we may yet learn how right they were.