With Arab Opinion Like This, Obama Needs Media Advice

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the Guardian/UK

With Arab Opinion Like This, Obama Needs Media Advice

The rhetoric of his Cairo speech has soured: the president can only move the debate on with a sea-change in US attitudes

A year ago in Cairo Barack Obama made an impassioned appeal for Arab goodwill and trust. Recognise I am a new type of American, he said in essence, who understands your pain and anger, and respects your culture and religion. "Islam is a part of America," he declared.

"Let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable ... They endure the daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation," he said later in the speech. Then, in a powerful sentence he was to repeat to the UN general assembly, he said: "America doesn't accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

No wonder Arabs were delighted. True, Obama made no promises of US sanctions, aid cuts or other action to reverse Israeli settlement activity, but they were willing to give him time to show he meant what he said.

A year later the disappointment is massive. A poll taken in six Arab countries in June and July shows the air has gone from the Obama bubble. The percentage of Arabs with a positive view of the US has sunk since last summer from 45% to 20%, while the negative percentage has risen from 23% to 67%. Only 16% call themselves "hopeful" about US policy.

The survey is conducted annually by Zogby International and Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland. The countries covered are among the region's least radical - Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - and represent the more modern and affluent parts of the so-called Arab street, with 40% of respondents using the internet every day.

The pollsters did not ask why people changed their views so rapidly. But a clue of sorts is in one of its most remarkable findings. On Iran a majority were not convinced by Tehran's denials of having a nuclear weapons programme. The Obama administration will presumably be pleased to learn that 57% think Iran is trying to make a bomb. What will be more troubling for the White House is the finding that only 20% think foreign countries are entitled to put pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme and, even more strikingly, that 57% believe it would be positive for the region for Iran to have the bomb.

This is astonishing, at least for anybody who took at face value the Washington line that Iran is perceived as the biggest threat within the region. Bush and Cheney spent years trying to ally Arab states against Iran, including by attempting to make Shia/Sunni differences a major political issue. Iran is of course a Shia country. Obama continued the policy, but it has backfired. With the exception of Lebanon, the countries in the poll not only have huge Sunni majorities, they are the very countries on which Washington has spent most effort to build an anti-Iranian alliance. Their rulers may take the US line, but their people do not.

It's true that support for Iran having nuclear weapons may simply mean "Leave Iran alone". It may also be a message to Obama not to go on falling for Netanyahu's diversionary ruse that resolving Israel's dispute with the Palestinians is a sideshow compared to the issue of Iran getting the bomb. Most Arabs refuse to accept that order of priorities, which is why the poll found 88% of its respondents named Israel as the world's biggest threat, followed by the US at 77%. Only 10% cited Iran.

Since his Cairo speech Obama's Middle Eastern failures have been glaring. US pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to ignore the Goldstone report on suspected war crimes during the Gaza conflict was followed by Obama's refusal to condemn Israeli piracy against the blockade-busting flotilla. A moment of anger with Netanyahu for the announcement of yet more illegal house-building in Arab East Jerusalem was forgotten a few months later when the Israeli prime minister was welcomed to the White House - a frown followed by fence-mending instead of a sustained campaign against Israel's serial violations of international law and significant cuts in the annual aid programme submitted to Congress.

It is easy to blame Obama, as though he alone had the power to crack down on Israel's political elite. It is easy, too, to blame the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for its lobbying against critical US politicians. Just as important is the pressure that pro-Israel campaigners put on the mainstream US media. They warn people off the very word Zionist as though only antisemites use it and demand Israel be treated as a special country whose politics deserve more sympathy than others.

In fact US publishers, editors, and reporters carry the biggest responsibility for the rotten state of US policy in the Middle East. The pro-Israel lobbies are powerful and Obama weak mainly because Americans rarely get an alternative view. On the rare occasions when Obama criticises the Israeli government, newspaper editorials and talk show hosts sometimes support him. How often do they condemn him on the more frequent occasions when he fails to criticise it?

It would be nice if Obama stuck his neck out, but he needs a radical media to start a real debate. The sea-change in US attitudes that the Middle East so urgently needs cannot come from the White House alone.

Jonathan Steele

Jonathan Steele is a Guardian columnist, roving foreign correspondent and author. He was the Guardian's bureau chief in Washington (1975 to 1979) and Moscow (1988 to 1994). In the 80s he reported from southern Africa, central America, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe. In the 90s he covered Kosovo and the Balkans. Since 9/11 he has reported from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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