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Rhetoric vs. Action in American Diplomacy

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The euphoria that accompanied Barack Obama's election brought great expectations globally. Both in the US and the wider Arab and Muslim worlds there was a hope that Obama's 'Yes We Can' campaign mantra would indeed make the promises of his vision for a New American engagement with the Muslim world, a reality. Obama's inaugural address and speeches in Ankara and then Cairo were a breath of fresh air and of hope that here was a president who "got it" and was committed to rebuild America's credibility in the Muslim world and beyond. Obama's message and vision was a clear repudiation of the Bush legacy with its primary emphasis on military power and moral exceptionalism and a return to America's longstanding principles and values.

The Cairo speech was hailed by many as a huge success -- marking a sea change from the Bush administration and the conduct of its Global War on Terror. Muslims around the globe welcomed the speech - but waited to see the corresponding changes in policies and actions on the part of the US. And the speech worked, initially. Major polls, like that of Gallup, reported a significant spike in attitudes towards the U.S. The MENA region saw the largest and fastest improvement in approval of U.S. leadership, for example , in Egypt from 6% in 2008 to 37% in 2009.

But by October 2010, Gallup's: "Measuring the State of Muslim-West Relations: Assessing 'The New Beginning'," reported That Obama's approval rating decreased from 37% to 18% in Egypt and similar dips were found in other MENA countries.

In 2011, despite the apparent best efforts of the Obama administration, US credibility in the Arab world has continued to plummet. A recent Zogby poll suggests that in the eyes of many in the Arab world, the Obama administration's foreign policy has not moved significantly beyond that of GWB. They see little difference between Bush and Obama policies on closing Guantanamo and introducing military courts, significantly increasing troops in Afghanistan, backtracking and retreating from the President's firm stand on ending illegal settlements in Palestine-Israel, and continuing support for authoritarian regimes. Like that of GWB, there is a failure to realize attitudes towards America are more about whether America walks the talk. The inspiring rhetoric has made current actions even more deeply disappointing.

In part, this disappointment reflects the real world impact of WikiLeaks. Whatever the best intentions had been behind the commitment to 21st century statecraft and public diplomacy, the façade of being the unquestioned global good guy was exposed by the torrent of documents and reports that evidenced US complicity in supporting regimes and states in the Arab and Muslim worlds that were anti-democratic and massively repressive. The impact of these revelations, reinforced by media images of innocent civilians killed by unmanned drones in a crescent from Northwest Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia, was compounded by the stalled peace process in Israel-Palestine.

The Arab Spring encapsulates the failure of public diplomacy whose actions do not speak louder than words. The series of popular uprisings against brutal and repressive dictatorships throughout the Middle East and North Africa apparently partially resulted from the WikiLeaks exposure of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and stung the US twice -- once for supporting these autocrats, and again for failing to move quickly and decisively, choosing to remain on the sidelines. Secretary of State Clinton, meeting with Arab political and civil society leaders, when asked about the Tunisian protests the day before Ben Ali fled Tunisia responded: "We can't take sides."

The lesson from Tunisia seemed lost on the administration when it came to Egypt. Rather than seizing the opportunity to be a leader in support for a new era in the Arab/Muslim world, the administration initially pronounced its strong support for Hosni Mubarak. On January 25, as tens of thousands of young Egyptians confronted the armed violence of riot police, Clinton declared: "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people" and a week later she praised the Mubarak regime for having served as the "partner of the U.S. for over three decades," and for "trying to stabilize a region that is subject to a lot of challenges."

Gallup's 'Egypt from Tahrir to Transition' report underscores the need to signal that the US will not cling to the failed narrative of the past and attempt to intervene or influence a specific outcome in Arab elections. Two-thirds of Egyptians surveyed think the U.S. will try to interfere in Egypt's political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. A similar number disagree that the U.S. is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region.

Like all people, the people of Egypt, especially those who most admire America's democratic principles, want to forge their political future independently. Almost 90% of Egyptians, who see the U.S. as a political model for their country, oppose U.S. aid to political groups in their country, more than those who hold this view among the general public (75%). Perhaps as a result, 52% of Egyptians oppose accepting economic aid as a whole -- 43% among those who believe Egypt should look to the U.S. model of democracy.

The lack of progress in Palestine uniquely undermines US claims to be a force for freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. As Gallup Polling (Oct 2008), pre Gaza war, found: as important as the closing of Guantanamo was to significantly improve attitudes toward the United States, it did not match the high level of support for U.S. pressure on Israel. Majorities of citizens in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon said that increasing pressure on Israel would improve their view of the United States "very significantly."

Against the backdrop of Middle East uprisings that have intensified animus toward Israel and growing momentum for global recognition of a Palestinian state, American officials are struggling to balance national security interests against the need to adapt to a transformative movement in the Arab world. No longer can America afford to forego its own interests in favor of an intransigent Israel that ignores U.S. views on things like settlements. Many bright, talented individuals are profoundly affected and changed by what they see and experience as endless occupation, oppression, corruption and injustice in the Arab world and in Israel-Palestine. They see a history of Western powers, particularly the US, supporting and aiding autocrats and Israeli government policies that use power and military force to threaten, invade and "occupy" Muslim lands. So too, the perception and realities of occupation and injustice in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, and Palestine continue to be a catalyst heavily exploited in the rhetoric and ideologies of terrorist organizations. Obama should not spend American political capital on convincing Euro-powers to vote down the Palestinian initiative at the UNGA. While steadfastly assuring Israel's security, the U.S. needs to let Netanyahu feel Israel's growing isolation in the international community.

How can the Obama administration reverse this disaster? It's a truism that honesty is the best policy -- but it resonates for a reason. The world is full of realistic people -- Muslims and non-Muslims -- who can deal and adapt to American strategic interests when they are stated outwardly and directly. On the other hand, America can't have its cake and eat it too -- strategic choices will have implications for conflict and popularity. This requires the White House to make real choices about what role America should play in the world. The Administration needs to make clear whether they are willing to make the hard choices required to support democratization in the Arab world and to move the peace process forward, or recognize that no amount of positive rhetoric will mask failure to do so.

John L. Esposito and Dr. Jonathan Githens-Mazer, Associate Professor of Ethno-Politics
Co-Director, European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC), University of Exeter