One year ago, on the second anniversary of President Obama’s historic Cairo University address to the Muslim World, we released the results of our 2011 Arab World polling. The findings were devastating, though not wholly unexpected. What we found was that America’s overall favorable ratings across the Arab World were lower in 2011 than they had been in the last year of the Bush Administration.
Domestic opponents of the President rather shamefully leapt for joy, refusing to acknowledge that this collapse of hope for change was in no small measure due to their obstructionism. And they appeared unconcerned with the consequences this loss of trust was having on America’s ability to function across the region. More troubling than the precipitous decline in America’s standing in the Arab World are the constraints this situation has imposed on the ability of the United States to play a constructive role in regional affairs.
We live in what I call, "the house that Bush built". Both at home and abroad, the impact of the sometimes neglectful and other times reckless policies of the last administration are everywhere in evidence. In the Middle East alone, we witnessed: two failed wars that have been costly beyond measure in lives and treasure; abominable behaviors that sullied our nation’s honor (torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, "black sites", rendition and more); an emboldened hard-line government in Israel, coupled with the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a failed peace process; an unleashed and aggressive Iran, flexing its muscles throughout the region; and the spread of destabilizing extremist currents.
This was the mess that greeted President Obama when he entered the White House. And what is most galling is not just the fact that his opponents had supported the policies that landed us in this mess in the first place, but that they have continued to oppose the President’s every effort to change direction.
They denounced the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq and now advocate an indeterminate involvement in Afghanistan. They have criticized Obama’s condemnation of torture, rebuking him for "apologizing for America". They blocked all efforts to close Guantanamo. They have publicly embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, siding with the intransigent Israeli leader against their own President while, at the same time, attempting to cut off aid to the Palestinians. They have denounced efforts to negotiate with Iran to rein in its nuclear program, advocating a more muscular approach, while publicly supporting Israel’s "right" to bomb that country. And they have refused support for programs the President has proposed that would provide needed capacity-building in Arab countries currently undergoing democratic transformations.
These critics have attempted to take advantage of every calamity in order to find fault with the White House. And they have blocked change when it might have been possible, while forcefully advocating that the current administration pursue the failed policies of the past.
It is possible to see this destructive dynamic at work in the partisan debate that has developed in face of the sustained and horrific violence that is now rocking Syria.
Responding quite soberly to the tragic Syrian situation last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, made clear that as horrific as the violence has been, it could get worse. She correctly cautioned against an aggressive military approach to the conflict, laying out in detail her concerns, noting, for example, that "funneling more weapons" into Syria risks creating "an all-out civil war and regional war". Speaking for the Administration, Rice made clear the U.S.’s opposition to Assad’s rule, but maintained that she continued to believe that, as difficult as it may be to achieve, a diplomatic and negotiated end to the fighting and to the regime was preferable to the consequences of the regional conflagration that might flow from outside parties pouring more gasoline on the flames.
What the Administration also knows is that given the strategic position of Syria, the fragility of the country and its neighbors, and America’s low political standing in the region, U.S. involvement in another ground war in the heart of the Middle East is the last thing we and the region need at this time.
The President’s opponents, on the other hand, have sought to take advantage of the public’s outrage over the atrocities they see occurring in Syria and to irresponsibly use it for political advantage. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, for example, criticized the White House last week, terming Obama weak and indecisive. No new policy was proposed, just harsh criticism. Romney’s supporters went further, with Senator Lindsey Graham advocating U.S.-led aggressive military action, and Senator John McCain calling on the administration to arm the Syrian opposition and set up a "safe haven" within Syria in which the rebels can operate against the regime. How could this be done without international legitimacy? Exactly how might it play out, when we don’t know enough about the rebels we would be arming, their capacity to win or govern, or their intentions should they win? How would a U.S.-led assault be received by Arabs, who despite their distaste for the Syrian regime are less trusting of America and are still reeling from Iraq and its aftermath. And what would be the effect of all this on vulnerable populations in Syria, or on Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, or Turkey? These questions, as critical as they are to answer, don’t matter to critics whose only goals are to attack.
This push for forceful action by the U.S. may resonate with some and score political points with others. However, in the real world in which we live, these calls for punishing military blows represent nothing more than the same dangerous reckless adventurism that landed us in the mess we’re in.
To be fair, the loss of American standing across the region is not just the fault of domestic opponents. In several instances, the Administration hasn’t helped itself. Bowing to political pressure, for example, the President’s speeches at the United Nations and AIPAC did grave damage to his standing in the Arab World. And while understandably not wanting to engage in an expansion of war into Yemen and Pakistan, the reliance on drone strikes to assassinate suspected targets has radicalized populations in both countries, while delivering a blow to America’s claim to uphold international law.
So here we are, three years after the President’s remarkable speech in Cairo. The Arab World is undergoing significant and sometimes destabilizing change, and the promised change in U.S. policy is not yet on the horizon. We are now in the midst of an election year, and so we can expect that the partisan attacks will continue and efforts for real change, if it is to come at all, will most likely have to wait until after November.