Not all that long ago, Barack Obama seemed to have big plans for the Middle East. Back in June of 2009, the president traveled to Egypt to unveil what he promised would be a "new beginning" between America and the Muslim world. In a major address at Cairo's famed Al-Azhar University, he proposed a new, more harmonious U.S. approach toward a region that had been roiled by nearly a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many in the region took him at his word. In country after country, civilians and statesmen alike waxed optimistic about the prospects for an impending upswing in U.S.-Arab relations.
But they have been sorely disappointed. Over the past half-decade, American dithering on Syria, its mismanagement of the "Arab Spring" and numerous other regional issues, coupled with a growing perception of U.S. strategic disengagement, have profoundly soured Middle Eastern publics on the Obama administration.
The depths of this disillusionment can be seen in a new poll just released by Zogby Research Services. That survey, entitled "Five Years After the Cairo Speech," amounts to a scathing indictment of the Obama administration's regional policy to date.
Team Obama's laissez-faire approach to Syria, for example, has made it the target of widespread anger throughout the Muslim world. Roughly a quarter of respondents in the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia all termed it to be the regional issue on which the White House has been "least effective," pointing in particular to America's failure to alleviate the mounting humanitarian crisis brought about by Syria's three-year-old civil war.
If anything, the administration's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen as being even worse. Fully half of all respondents in the Palestinian Territories and Egypt, and a quarter or more in Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, believe the U.S. has fundamentally failed in its efforts to resolve the impasse between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This view, moreover, persists despite the frenetic recent efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to get the moribund Israeli-Palestinian dialogue back on track.
Most of all, however, the Arab world's belief that the U.S. is committed to the promotion of freedom appears to have collapsed utterly. In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama articulated an "unyielding belief" in democratic values, and pledged to "support them everywhere." Yet his administration hasn't done anything substantive since. Instead, facing an array of stubborn regional problems, the White House has steadily gravitated toward a "more modest" Middle East strategy – one that is concerned with Syria's chemical arsenal, Iran's nukes and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but with precious little else.
The region has noticed. In 2010, 51 percent of Moroccans believed America was invested in advancing democracy in the greater Middle East. Today, just 19 percent do. Similarly, whereas four years ago 64 percent of Egyptians were convinced that the White House supported the spread of freedom worldwide, today only 27 percent believe it still does. The tallies from several other countries in the region (including Jordan and Saudi Arabia) are similarly damning.
These figures provide a telling glimpse into how, half-a-decade after the Cairo speech, Washington is truly seen today by regional publics. The White House may try to spin its policy of selective engagement in the Middle East as just so much prudent realism. But audiences there increasingly see an administration that is adrift, inattentive and out of its depth. Which is another way of saying that in the Middle East, like in so many other places, the reality of Obama's approach has failed to match its lofty rhetoric.