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.

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

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.

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

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

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?

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.

© 2023 The Guardian