Arab Attitudes One Year after Cairo

One year ago, President Barack Obama traveled to Cairo to deliver what was billed as an “Address to the Muslim World”. Obama understood that after eight years of neglectful and/or reckless Bush Administration policies in the Middle East, it was important to signal a change in direction to the people of that region.

The speech, which focused on shared problems, shared misconceptions and shared goals, elicited a near euphoric response from most officials and editorial writers across the Arab World. The reactions of the Arab public, on the other hand, though positive, were more tempered and nuanced.

From polls we conducted throughout the President’s first year and one half in office, we have observed clear evidence of an “Obama bounce” in Arab public opinion. It began with his election and peaked with the Cairo address.

A year ago, when these initial polls were released, I noted that what Obama had accomplished was the restoration of “Brand America”. On one level, the impact of 8 years of George W. Bush had been erased. Strong majorities still held overall negative views of America and American policies in Palestine, Iraq and the treatment of Muslims and Arabs worldwide. But there were marked improvements in attitudes toward the American people, culture, values, and products–”with favorable ratings in all these areas back at pre-Bush levels. And while Obama was personally viewed favorably, and there was some degree of confidence that the new President would work to make needed policy changes, this was not an opinion shared by a majority of Arabs.

Our polling established that the factors driving this complex but overall positive swing in Arab attitudes were varied. First and foremost among these factors was the very election of Barack Hussein Obama. From pre-election polling in the region, we knew that Arabs had followed the tumultuous U.S. contest and were acutely aware of the profound change represented by the American people’s rejection of the policies of the Bush era and historic nature of their choice of an African American to lead the country.

Arabs were also moved by the new President’s repudiation of torture, his decisions to close Guantanamo and to leave Iraq, the immediate attention he gave to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the early and dramatic outreach Obama made to the Arab and Muslim peoples–”beginning with his al Arabiya interview and culminating with the Cairo address.

But as our polls made clear, there was also a deep-seated and well-founded wariness that after decades of hopes betrayed and promises broken ” as some respondents told us, “no U.S. President can change American policy.”

It was this view that received some validation in the months after Cairo as the White House appeared to pull the plug on whatever expectations of change had taken hold. Disappointment over the U.S.’s back-tracking on the call for a “complete settlement freeze” was compounded by Washington’s quick and flat out rejection of the Goldstone Report on crimes committed during the January 2009 Gaza War. Guantanamo was not closed and then following a failed attempt to down a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009, the White House announced plans to target all passengers traveling from or through 14 mostly Arab and Muslim countries. This set off a wave of indignation across the Middle East, with editorials in even some pro-American papers questioning whether anything had changed in Washington.

To be fair, from the earliest days of his Presidency, Obama had cautioned that making change would be slow and uneven. Comparing government to a huge ocean liner, he observed that it could not be turned on a dime. Progress would be slow, mistakes would be made, and change could only be measured over time. And to give credit, the Administration has, in some areas, reasserted itself and changed course, most notably in the effort to halt Israeli construction in occupied Jerusalem and in scraping the 14 country screening plan.

Our most recent polling suggests that an “Obama bounce” is still in evidence. Arabs remain wary about U.S. Middle East policy and skeptical about the Administration’s ability to be even-handed in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Favorable attitudes toward the President, himself, are down somewhat, but overall ratings Arab give to American people, culture, values and products remain high. In this regard, it is fair to say that Arab attitudes one year after Cairo are both cautious and mature. They are neither unrealistically hopeful nor excessively deflated. They are still waiting for needed change and open to recognize it when it comes.