The Arab World & The 9/11 Decade

Friday, September 23, 2011


Posted: 9/9/11 12:35 PM ET
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11 how does the Arab world view the United States? To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: is America's image better today in Arab world than it was 10 years ago? If so, to what affect? If not, why not?

If 9/11 represented a "clash of civilizations" it also compelled a "shotgun relationship" between the U.S. and the Middle East. From the fall of the Taliban caliphate in Afghanistan, to the invasion of Iraq, to the outbreak of Arab revolutions the waning days of this 9/11 decade has drawn America deeper into the affairs and changes of the Arab world as democratic revolts spread across the region -- at significant cost to America's standing in the Middle East. Precisely not what bin Laden had bargained for when he attacked us.

Ten years ago, the United States was largely blind to the virus of Salafist extremism even though Al Qaeda's warped ideology had already begun taking root among Arab youth. That fall of 2001, semi-reliable public opinion polls indicated that the majority of Arabs considered America an arrogant nation, using its power to undermine Arab aspirations, blindly support Israel, and support dictatorships which rewarded cronies and severely punished adversaries -- a political environment conducive to recruiting a growing army of suicide bombers.

A decade later, the extremist ideology of Al Qaeda is largely discredited and popular democratic revolts have seized the Arab world. Obviously, that is a good development. So, as noted Arab commentator Mshari Al-Zaydi asked: "Have Arab revolutions cooled the fire of religious extremism?"
So far, early signs suggest the revolts have indeed chilled extremist ardor. Arab rage and resentment aimed at Israel and the United States has, for the time being, given way to domestic debate and acknowledgement that the socio-economic Arab condition is home grown. A variety of credible public opinion polls taken by American, European and Arab pollsters in the wake of the revolts indicated that unlike ten years no longer is the United States viewed as the purveyor of all evil, or seemingly at war with Islam as Bin Laden peddled to a receptive Muslim audience.

If malignant extremist-recruiting rage and resentment against the U.S. has largely dissipated among Arabs, it has been replaced by sullen disappointment and disillusionment with America and its president -- ironically a "better" position to be in insofar as fodder for Salafist terror recruiting . Nevertheless, not the desired result either the U.S. or the Arab world bargained for after President Obama took office.
When Obama traveled to Cairo in June, 2009, he was universally acclaimed as a new voice of America in a jaded Arab world. As he lifted so many American ones he also lifted Arab spirits on a veritable magic carpet ride of heightened expectations and promises. But the carpet has fallen to earth. According to a Zogby International poll conducted in June, critical Arab countries dislike America and its president now more than ever. And in most countries, U.S. favorable ratings are lower than at the end of the Bush administration, and even lower than Iran's favorability ratings (except, not surprisingly, in Saudi Arabia). Even more disturbing, the killing of bin Laden only helped to worsen attitudes toward the U.S. - ironic given increasing Arab rejection of Al Qaeda's virulent ideology.

A sampling of the Zogby Poll on the overall question of favorable Arab attitudes toward the U.S.:
                            2009 / 2011
Morocco                55% / 12%
Egypt                     30% / 5%
Jordan                   25% / 10%
UAE                       21% / 12%

What accounts for this reversal of fortune? Why have Arabs so resoundingly rejected Obama's entreaties?

First, in the view of most Arabs, the United States under Obama held too long and too tenaciously to Arab autocrats, and when the revolts began, the United States was perceived as having been the last to cut the umbilical chord. American efforts to facilitate and support revolts are overwhelmingly viewed as unwelcomed interference designed to create further obstacles to peace and stability in the region.

Second, Arabs are deeply disappointed with Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama, however naively, created a false expectation that he would become more "even handed" toward Israel and devote himself (rather than subcontract the heavy lift out) to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace).

Third, despite Obama's promise to have his administration help usher in a new era of American entrepreneurial vitality to jumpstart economic growth in the Middle East, few Arabs have seen any tangible signs on the horizon of support. As with his domestic critics of his speeches, the administration suffers from a chronic governance problem translating word into result. The president's staff simply did not have an "Act II" in place to effectively transform promise into practice. The pledged delivery of the American economic engine of change could never quickly meet such highly inflated expectations to achieve the desired regional impact that Arabs believed Obama had committed to. And the opinion data in the Zogby poll overwhelmingly faults the Obama administration for failing to meet the expectations he set in his Cairo speech.

Interpreting the data does not require resort to rocket science. All of the negative polling across the spectrum adds up to a collective assessment by Arabs that the U.S. is viewed as an obstacle to peace and stability in the Arab world, and not a welcomed facilitator of positive, credible change. Ironically, according to Zogby, on the two issues on which the Obama administration invested considerable energy: "The Palestinian Issue" and "engagement with the Muslim world" the U.S. receives the lowest approval ratings -- less than 9% across the board. This is the same result in other polls, including the Pew Research polls taken as the revolts unfolded according access to greater sampling populations.

It is too early to tell how the Obama administration's aid in the overthrow of Gaddafi and finally (albeit belatedly) breaking with Syria's Assad will alter these Arab assessments. But also looming on the horizon is the September General Assembly vote on Palestinian recognition which will surely create further ill will toward the U.S. when it publicly sides with Israel.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Arabs opinion is, in my view, unduly harsh on a well-intentioned president. After all, the president is fulfilling his commitment to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is certainly not meddling in the Middle East to prop up unpopular dictators to maintain the status quo -- quite the contrary. That really is an unfair rap given American efforts in Libya, Syria and Yemen as well as an important financial aid package to help salvage the ailing Egyptian economy.
Moreover, the president did launch a series of innovative entrepreneurial initiatives for the Middle East to help young Arabs develop the skills they need to lead their countries out of their economic doldrums. So perhaps the problem his administration faces in the opinion polls lies less in the depth and breadth of the effort and more in his administration's chronic public diplomacy shortcomings to inform the Arab world about them including the time it would take to make them widely visible across the region.

Finally, Arabs have yet to jettison the entrenched myth that the United States can compel Israel to take orders from Washington. Here, too, the president does not deserve the rap he has taken from the Arab world given his administration's awkward, but well-intentioned efforts at forging a Middle East peace. The problem is less about Obama's intentions and more about his administration's policy execution and its challenges with an close friend and ally that refuses to agree with the president's tactics and strategies.
The take away after ten years is that Arabs have become far more introspective and focused on their own rocky transitions toward a more encouraging future. The United States is no longer viewed as malignantly as it once was ten years ago. But on this anniversary of 9/11 it is undeniably difficult to accept the cold, hard fact that Arabs, as much as they may respect, like, and admire the American people, have such a low opinion of the United States after a decade's commitment to repair America's ties with the Arab and broader Muslim world.

I am sure this bad news is reversible and repairable. Instinctively, Arabs truly believe the United States is a nation capable of being a global leader for inspiring ideals and positive change around the world. It is highly unlikely that the president will make any further headway on the Palestinian issue. But we do have some ways by which to reverse the trend lines. We can start by focusing on the issues that matter most to Arabs having toppled their dictators: "it's the economy, stupid!" This is the type of "American interference" in the region that Arabs will welcome. They desperately need American private investment to rebuild their economies. And while the U.S. cannot shoulder the financial burden alone, it can do far more to forge a more effective private and public sector global rescue plan to sustain positive economic changes in the region.

It's been a long, tortuous and unrewarding ten-year slog through the sands of Arab public opinion East since 9/11.

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