Lost Opportunity?

Obama’s Muslim World Fantasy: Early Hopes Undermined by Drone War

A new Pew poll shows the toll of a remote-controlled war on Obama in the Muslim world. By Elise Jordan.

Pervez Masih / AP Photo

Three years ago this month, President Barack Obama promised a transformation in America’s relations with the Muslim world. He gave the first television interview of his presidency to the Al Arabiya news channel six days after his inauguration, and sent a Persian New Year video address to the people of Iran a few months later. The high water mark of his stated quest to rehab our reputation occurred in Cairo, in a speech titled “A New Beginning.” There, Obama apologized for past sins against the Muslim world (like colonialism) and heralded the religion’s historical “tolerance and racial equality.”

To stay on message, Obama avoided mentioning some of the more uncomfortable realities—that our most significant terrorist threat is from those using Islam as a shield, as well as the gender discrimination Muslim women face, one of the world’s most egregious and systematic abuses of human rights.

But despite these efforts, it’s now clear that his platitudes didn’t get him very far. The men and women of the region, it seems, have seen through the Obama hype. According to a recently released Pew poll on Obama’s favorability in the Muslim world, 76 percent of Egyptians would like to make him a one-termer. Majorities in Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan don’t want to see Obama re-elected, either. “Respondents in predominantly Muslim countries continue to have a low opinion of Obama, and the American leader’s ratings have slipped significantly since 2009 in the five Muslim countries where trends are available, including a 13 percentage-point poll drop in Egypt,” according to Pew. “Opinion is generally against Obama in most of the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed.”

Why the backlash against Obama?

In Cairo, Obama promised a relationship with the Muslim world built on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” He avoided any strong calls for the democratic movements that would sweep the region two years later, leaving dissidents feeling like they were standing alone. “What touched on democracy and human rights in the speech was far less than we wanted,” said Ayman Nour, a prominent Egyptian political prisoner, after the remarks.

Obama then missed a series of opportunities to be on the right side of history. First, in real time, he didn’t lend support for democratic dissidents in Iran in 2009, where today’s nuclear endgame might be quite different if he did so. His policy of non-interference left Tehran’s leadership empowered to torture and imprison leaders of the Green movement and closer than ever to obtaining a nuclear weapon. Obama was behind the eight ball on Egypt, largely silent on the Saudi crackdown on Bahrain, and appears at a loss about who to back in Syria.

Although he did choose to bomb Libya and oust Gaddafi—a despot, but one who had renounced his nuclear program to avoid Saddam Hussein’s fate—support on the Arab Street was fleeting because of our inconsistent policy of ousting dictators who serve no American interest, but tolerating despotic royals in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Obama did, however, promise the Muslim world he’d respect “principles of justice and progress”—exactly the opposite of our policy of a remote-controlled drone war, the most hated policy, according to the Pew poll. Unsurprisingly, of 20 countries surveyed, majorities in 17 nations disapprove of the U.S. military’s use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

That kind of widespread anger used to be a major talking point when it was President George W. Bush who was blamed for it. But now among Democrats and so-called progressives, there’s a particularly egregious double standard. Bush’s detention policies were universally condemned by liberals, while Obama’s outright killing of suspected terrorists, including an American citizen turned al Qaeda operative, with no due process, was applauded.

During Obama’s presidency, the use of drones increased fivefold. Once in office, he’s decided to fight terrorism with no accountability or transparency—and yet he still wants to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

There might be a way to do this, but it has more risk attached to it than giving a well-written speech. To pursue a terrorism policy that’s based on capturing and interrogating the bad guys, rather than just randomly blowing up a bunch of people who might be threat. It’s a lot harder to capture a terrorist, keep them alive for interrogation, and figure out to do with them afterward than it is to kill by remote control thousands of miles from the battlefield.

When war—as our bombing campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen should be called—becomes anonymous, un-measurable in its outcome, and relatively risk-free in human cost on our end, it’s unsurprising that the Pakistanis and Yemenis we ostensibly don’t want to radicalize are angered by our targeting campaign.

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After all, there’s no illusion that America was beloved in Pakistan in 2008. But it’s telling that despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding Obama’s reconfiguring relations, our approval rating hasn’t even held steady, but plummeted because of an over-reliance on the drone campaign. Obama’s dithering has sent more than 120,000 Syrian refugees into Jordan, intensifying Jordan’s chronic water shortage and state fiscal crisis, as well as raising fears that Assad loyalists are infiltrating the Hashemite Kingdom. Like Americans who bought into “change you can believe in,” audiences abroad are frustrated by Obama’s habit of overpromising in rhetoric. When Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, he gave lip service to multilateral institutions, when in reality America’s foreign policy will not ever be subjugated to the whims of flawed international organizations.

The world has wised up to the harsh reality of Obama’s leadership. The Nobel laureate is all words and no deeds, save anonymous strikes. And where the Muslim world senses weakness, Europe sees decline. According to the Pew poll, the rest of the world increasingly shares agreement that China is the leading economic superpower.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The depressing irony is in what the Muslim world does respect about America. More than half of Jordanians, Egyptians, Tunisians, and Lebanese respond favorably about our capitalistic model. They like the way we do business—more trade, less drones might not be a bad policy for the president to pursue.