Obama's popularity may be down in US, but he's even less popular among Arabs

President Obama's popularity in the US has declined sharply this year and he's always been unpopular in Israel. But his numbers have plunged the most in countries that had high hopes for change in the Middle East.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama attends a Democratic Party fundraising event in Chicago, August 5. Obama's popularity in the US has declined sharply this year, but he's even less popular among Arabs.

President Barack Obama, who promised "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" in a landmark speech in Cairo a little over a year ago, now finds his – and America's – image in the Middle East right where it's been for decades: mired in distrust.

Overwhelmingly people in the Middle East reported frustrated perceptions that the US and President Obama exhibit favoritism toward Israel. It is widely believed that the US is either incapable of or unwilling to break the Israel-Palestine deadlock.

Right-wing commentators in the US may say Obama's an opponent of Israel, and polls in the Jewish state itself show he's deeply distrusted there (60 percent of Israelis polled this spring said Obama was "seeking to improve relations with Arab states at the expense of Israel"), but The Brookings Institution's annual poll of Arabic public opinion, released today, shows that Obama's approval rating has plunged in the region over the past year faster and further than anywhere else.

In the US, Obama's "favorable rating" has plunged from about 70 percent at the time of his election to about 44 percent today, according to Pollster.com's aggregate of major US polls. But the standing of the president who was once the world's darling has slipped globally as well, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Arab states.

The Cairo speech didn't unleash euphoria in the MIddle East, but it did seem to convince the Arab public that they were at least going to see something different.

Obama said then, while also staunchly defending Israel's right to exist, that Palestinians "endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

Since then, settlement growth has continued despite Israel's promises of a temporary freeze.

The Brooking's poll, conducted with Zogby International in late June and early July in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Jordan found that "positive" views of Obama among Arabs had slipped from 45 percent to 20 percent in the past year, and that his "negatives" had soared from 23 to 62 percent.

A year ago, 51 percent reported they were “hopeful” about Obama's policy toward the Middle East compared with 15 percent who reported they were “discouraged.” Those numbers shifted to 15 percent hopeful and 61 percent discouraged this time around.

Why? Of those polled, 61 percent said they were “most disappointed” by Obama’s Palestine-Israel policy, followed by Iraq at 27 percent and the administration's “attitudes towards Islam” at 5 percent.

The impression in the region is that Obama, who had indicated he was going to get tough on Israel settlement expansion in his Cairo speech and a few times during his first year in office, had defaulted to a US foreign policy status quo that has long infuriated Arabs and Muslims.

To Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University in DC, the reasons are clear. Writing on his blog at Foreign Policy magazine.

Mr. Lynch, who closely follows Arab public opinion and US public diplomacy in the region, says the poll should be taken with a grain of salt since polls in the region are generally less reliable than in the US and Europe. He also says there's still some hope for the administration's foreign policy in the region.

But by and large, the poll tracks with other recent polls and research and the Brookings results "do point to some significant and uncomfortable realities about the costs of failing to deliver meaningful change," Lynch writes. "The survey's findings suggest overwhelmingly that it is the administration's failures on the Israeli-Palestinian front which drove the collapse in Arab attitudes towards Obama."

"The perceived failure to deliver meaningful change has taken its toll. Public opinion surveys are only one part of the story --- the goals of engagement are always broader than "moving the numbers" in opinion surveys, even if any administration would happily trumpet positive numbers, and deny the significance of bad numbers. If the administration begins to deliver -- on Israeli-Palestinian peace, on the withdrawal from Iraq, on engagement with Iran -- then the numbers will change."

But for now, one could argue that overall views of the US are only marginally improved from the Bush Administration, if at all. While 64 percent had “very unfavorable” views of the US in 2008 and only 48 percent do so today, most of those opinions have moved into the “somewhat unfavorable” column (38 percent now against 19 percent in 2008). Fewer Arab’s have a “somewhat” or “very” favorable views of the US now than they did in 2008 (12 percent view the US favorably now against 15 percent then).

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