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Obama on Moving Sands

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I suggested in a post last week that it is useful to place Arab countries experiencing political turmoil in three categories: those that seem to be on a positive trajectory toward democracy; those in a state of uncertainty; and those where the forces of repression have crushed the opposition. This is how I fill in the blanks of my taxonomy. In Category A, I believe that only Tunisia deserves that designation. Category B includes Egypt with prospective candidates Libya (post-Gaddafi) and perhaps Jordan later on. Category C is the most populated: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and Jordan.

Of course, outside the Arab world, Iran also belongs there. In addition, let's not forget Iraq where large demonstrations resulting in 30 or so killed by police gunfire. Iraq is instructive for what it tells us not only about the state of post-occupation Iraq but also the rising threshold of tolerance for corruption, incompetence, and disrespect for personal dignity by authoritarian leaders whether elected or not.

Washington is preoccupied with trying to balance its international public relations efforts (appearing on the side of virtue) against other tangible interests ('Terrorism,' Israel, Oil and Iran). Its faltering performance is compounded by domestic considerations of both the electoral kind and the implacable opposition of the Pentagon to engaging American military forces. A feature of this debate is competing assertions as to how this is playing in the Arab 'street' and the Arab 'palace.' How do we go about a serious estimation of the standing and image of the United States in the minds of Middle East populaces?

I can imagine four methods: survey data; anecdotal information; assessing the logic of circumstances; and empathy. The last two are obviously related. My dire conclusion as to the negative perceptions of the United States are based on a combination of these. Opinion surveys (the best are by Pew) before the uprisings already exposed the fact that substantial majorities held a negative view of the United States across the region. Attitudes toward the United States as a country were somewhat higher than views of American actions, although that difference has been narrowing. I do not know of current polls but under turbulent circumstances, I don't think that they're worth much.

As to anecdotal data, here is mine. Tunisia: extensive contact. Most people feel no debt to the United States since they received little support until very late in the day. They simply were glad that Washington did not support their brother in arms in the war on terror.

The Gulf: I correspond with a few people who know the region intimately, live there, and know the Arabic vernacular. They agree that we indeed have hit rock bottom among Shi'ites in Bahrain, democrats in Kuwait, democrats in Saudi Arabia, democrats in the Emirates and democrats in Oman -- not to speak of Yemen where democrats feel utterly betrayed. I use the term 'democrats' rather loosely. In Iraq, Shi'ite opinion has hardened in its dislike and distrust of the United States -- their self advertised liberator. The same for Shi'ites in Lebanon.

Egypt: the United States in the abstract may still be associated with political liberties but the Obama administration is widely viewed as two-faced and speaking out of both sides of its mouth. The overwhelming impression seems to be that Washington has revealed itself to be just like any other self interested state that uses the language of enlightened values when convenient and when it serves American interests. This surely is the conclusion of governments of any stripe.

Then there is the specific the question of the United States as a status quo power or otherwise. The American position was that of a status quo power until 9/1,1 after which we set ourselves an agenda of radical change -- if on a selective basis. The freedom express would get no boost from Washington when it came to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf generally. By 2005 or so we reverted to our status quo strategy -- with the exception of Iran. Recent events have not changed the calculations that underlay that status quo position in any substantial way.

The wave of popular movements aiming at forcing drastic alterations in the existing political order makes us by definition a reactionary power. Grudging gestures and belated rhetoric from the White House habitually a half an hour behind the times doesn't change that. It most certainly doesn't efface the resentment and disillusionment of those seeking democratic transformation. The record of White House equivocation and self serving selectivity is confirmed by what we have and have not done on Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Obviously we have no interest or intent in rolling back the revolution in Tunisia. In Egypt we have no reason to seek to restore the old order in its entirely. But we surely much prefer that important elements of the old order do stay in place: Egyptian collaboration on Gaza, on the fictive peace process, on Lebanon, and on Iran -- not to speak of full cooperation in lending all means (fair or foul) on the endless 'war on terror.' On Libya, the Europeans forced Obama to overcome his deep reluctance and the opposition of the Pentagon to do the minimal possible. Last night, he cast our intervention in strictly humanitarian terms without the "Gaddafi must go" call that he used earlier when he sought to reap some benefit from identifying with what then looked like a sure thing. On this record, I see no basis for claiming that the Obama administration has embraced the transformative process in the Middle East. Some Americans may see it that way -- especially among the punditry; few if any in the region do.

Brigadier Ali judges President Obama as having said all the right things. My view is somewhat different. He may have said them at certain times. But he did not say them at other times or consistently. In Egypt, he wanted Mubarak to stay in office during a long transition period. The second choice was Suleiman whether in tandem with Mubarak or on his own. People in Cairo with whom I've spoken bitterly resent this. In Yemen, he still has said not a bad word about Saleh while his officials spout many words about his value as an ally in the war... In Bahrain, after an initial condemnation of the use of violence and a general call for moderation, we deferred to the regime's crackdown with Saudi participation. Who among us as persons putting their lives on the line in the cause of political decency would come away from all this with an image of the United States as inspiration and ally? Who as observers of what has happened, would reach any other judgment? Who would go into the streets expecting American support?

There is also the 'idealism' -- 'realism' gap. In terms of actual behavior, I agree that the United States has followed a realist course since the onset of the Cold War. Our idealist rhetoric and self-conception was reinvigorated by 'victory' in the Cold War and the spreading of democracy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the 1990s. The 9/11 decade has seen us on a retrograde path. Striking an anti-Imperialist, pro-Russian pose during the Cold War has been replaced by the anti-terrorist pose as the surefire ticket to win American favors.

Mr. Saleh played the game in both eras. He may yet survive to play off Washington and Beijing. The Bush administration's loud trumpeting of its freedom agenda belied by our actions throughout the Greater Middle East did make the hollowness of that rhetoric evident. It almost extinguished our 'beacon' image, but the still smoldering embers were rekindled by the sparkling image and words of Barack Obama. Positive feelings and expectations from the United States have eroded since the early days of his flaming popularity. Now, his timid, vacillating and incongruous poses over the past three months have branded him indelibly as a hypocrite. Consequently, as with all unrequited feelings, the reaction has been all the more bitter because of those earlier raised expectations. That is why I conclude that little remains of America's image abroad as a nation of exceptional virtue other than lingering resentment.

At home, I think that it's another story. Although domestic opinion can respond to appeals based strictly on national interests, it still cleaves to the notion that the United States is always well intentions and behaves in a way that benefits others and the world generally. Sure, in casual conversation one hears remarks like "let's just nuke the m...f....s." But a foreign policy that predicates that sentiment could not carry the country with it. We are of course open to manipulation of images, myths, and emotions of all kinds to generate backing for all manner of foolish behavior -- e.g. Iraq. And Mr. Obama has been equally dishonest in not squaring with the American people -- even if he lacks both opportunity and courage to do something as monumentally stupid as Iraq. Fearful timidity has its benefits.