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Protests Fuel Debate Over Obama's Foreign Policy Toward Arab World

A protester hits a portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama with a shoe -- a gesture of insult in the Arab world -- in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo last spring.
WASHINGTON -- In 2009, just five months into his presidency, Barack Obama gave a speech in Cairo to signal what he hoped would be a fresh start with the Muslim world.

"I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world -- one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition," Obama said. "Instead, they overlap and share common principles – principles of justice, and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.”

After almost a decade of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Obama was seeking to turn the page on years of mutual distrust and suspicion.

That attempt largely failed, says Michael Rubin, a scholar at Washington's American Enterprise Institute. But Rubin also says that’s not because of anything Obama did or didn’t do after he gave that speech.

"I’m not sure we can really say that the Middle East revolves around the White House or [whoever] the occupant of the White House happens to be," Rubin says. "Oftentimes, whether it’s under President Obama, or before him, under President [George W.] Bush, or President [Bill] Clinton, the U.S. tends to be in reactive mode towards the Middle East, rather than in proactive mode.”

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Protests sparked by an obscure U.S.-made video mocking Islam kicked off in Arab countries this month before sweeping across other parts of the Muslim world. And as the often violent protests continue, Obama’s post-Arab spring policies are coming up for review in Washington, which is in the midst of a heated election season.

Decades Of Oppression

Republicans, who are seeking to win back the White House, have seized on the violent deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, as well as images of U.S. embassies being overrun and the American flag being torn down, to criticize Obama for weak leadership.

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute
But Rubin, like many foreign policy analysts, sees the current wave of anti-American anger as rooted in Arab Muslims’ deep frustration over decades of oppression and lack of economic opportunities.

“I think that 80 percent of what we’re seeing in the Middle East right now has to do with domestic politics in the Arab world, for which the United States is a convenient foil," Rubin says. "The fault upon President Obama may have been expecting that a change of tone could fundamentally alter the perceptions in the Middle East of the United States, but in reality, the Arab Spring caught everyone by surprise.”

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says blaming Obama’s policies for the anti-American protests is “misplaced and inappropriate.”

Like Rubin, he says U.S. influence during the Arab Spring has been diminished because events are being driven by forces beyond Washington’s control.

“They’re being driven by a profound anger toward the United States, which has been loosed by the Arab Spring. And that anger has been building up over the course of 40 years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations," Miller says. "Profound anger rooted in what is perceived to be our blind support for Israel, profound anger as a consequence of our military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, profound anger against our counterterrorism policy and use of predator drones.

"And then among a marginal but increasingly influential group of Islamists, anger at who we are – our culture, our values, our freedom of conscience and freedom of speech," Miller continues, "which in this country is protected and which allows a fourth-rate filmmaker to make a video which offends Muslims to the core.”

'Islamist Spring'

Miller says U.S. influence has also shrunk in places where postrevolution governments are dominated by Islamic politicians, who are less willing than their predecessors to calm tensions during anti-U.S. protests. He even describes the rise to power of these new leaders as the "Islamist Spring."
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his address to the Muslim world at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his address to the Muslim world at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

"We have to get used to the fact that when fair and free elections are held in this part of the world, whatever we prefer or don’t, Islamists -- disciplined, more organized, more coherent, rooted in and appealing to very traditional societies like Egypt -- are going to do extremely well,” he says.

Miller says he would have liked to see Obama “send a much stronger message” to new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who waited several hours before sending police to stop a mob that was attacking the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Morsi eventually condemned the violence and called for calm, but only after a reportedly tough phone call from Obama.

But Rubin thinks the White House could have done more to prevent Islamists from gaining power in the first place, by supporting more democratically minded candidates.

He faults the White House for relying on regional allies to assert its influence.

“When it came to Egypt, when it came to Libya, we found ourselves working through Qatar, working through Turkey, perhaps even working through Saudi Arabia," Rubin says. "But where I would fault President Obama is, it seemed too often he forgot that these countries had their own agendas. And without exception, they tended to fund and back the more radical factions emerging in these states.”

Cautious Reaction

In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama expressed strong support for democratic principles, but he also said, “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other."

In 2011, months after the Arab spring began, he gave another speech -- one that detailed a bold plan to help countries that suddenly found themselves in the midst of political transition. He offered $4 billion to Egypt alone, to boost private investment, create jobs, and forgive debt.

Obama’s reaction to embattled Arab dictators – some of them longtime U.S. allies – has been more cautious. He was criticized for standing by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak too long, but he led the NATO air strikes in Libya that helped topple Muammar Qaddafi, and he has called repeatedly for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power. His muted response to antigovernment protests in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered, has been criticized by democracy activists.

Whichever candidate wins the White House this fall, Miller says don’t expect to see much change in U.S. policy toward the region.

“What you see is what you get,” he says. “A very difficult road for the United States to try and protect its interests.”