02/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama Faces Daunting Task Winning Over Arab World

RIYADH -- A Saudi friend recently asked me a difficult question.

Norah Al Hassawi was lamenting the horrible televised scenes of bloodshed and human misery in Gaza that have made her, and the rest of the Arab world, deeply depressed and angry in recent weeks.

"Americans are educated people," said Al Hassawi, an educator. "They can talk. What happened there? How come they can't see?"

What do I tell her? How do I explain why Americans have shown little interest in the death and destruction that their country's closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel, has inflicted on Gaza?

Shall I tell her that Americans are busy people? They are incurious about the rest of the world? They're bored by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? They are convinced by the argument that Israel's campaign was an act of self-defense against Hamas rockets? They're influenced by the Israeli lobby? Misinformed by the media?

At a loss for words, I did not reply to Al Hassawi. But newly sworn-in U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to be speaking to people like her in his Inaugural speech on Tuesday.

"To the Muslim world," he said "we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

The next day, Obama signaled that the Middle East would be on his front burner when he called three Arab leaders, as well as Israel's prime minister, to say hello from the Oval Office. And one of his first executive orders was to close the Guantanamo detention camp within a year.

Despite these goodwill gestures, the Obama administration faces a daunting task to convince a skeptical and angry Arab world that it is sincere about change in their part of the world.

After decades of disappointment in U.S. presidents, ordinary people are deeply cynical about such promises. If he wants to win their hearts and minds -- the most crucial antidote to terrorism -- Obama will have to address the most obvious, and important, political reality on the ground.

"People in the Arab and Islamic world care about one thing," said Ahmad Al Farraj, a political scientist in Riyadh. "And that is whether the United States is going to be fair when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

As anyone who's lived in the Middle East will tell you, people of this region are always saying they love Americans but hate U.S. foreign policy, regarded as unconditionally supportive of Israel at Arabs' expense. Washington's support for authoritarian Arab governments, and its lack of consistency in promoting democracy and human rights, are also major grievances among many Arabs. The outcome is a deep cynicism in this part of the world when America trumpets its ideals, even with oratory as eloquent and inspiring as the new president's.

Turki al Sudairy, president of the government-appointed Human Rights Commission, put it this way: "We love the American people. But when you look at how the policies are directed, we see something else, which has nothing to do with simple Americans' view of human rights."

For ordinary Americans, this willingness to separate them as individuals from their government's foreign policies is a fortunate bifurcation.

Unfortunately, it is one that Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk reject. The Al Qaeda master has argued that civilians living in Western democracies are legitimate targets for terrorist attacks precisely because they elect their governments and support them with their taxes. Thus, he contends, they are responsible for their governments' policies.

It's a very dangerous idea, and one that so far is not widely accepted in the Arab world.

In the post-Gaza climate of anger with U.S. foreign policy, it is hard to believe that just a little over 50 years ago, the United States was beloved in the Middle East. That was the case when President Dwight Eisenhower forced Britain and Israel to reverse their invasion of Egypt.

Since then, the U.S. has gone steadily downhill in Arab esteem. For more than two decades, for example, it has tolerated the building of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in what is widely seen as a violation of international law.

These settlements, the road network connecting them, and the huge wall now separating the West Bank from Israel, have made a geographically viable Palestinian state nearly impossible.

The U.S.-led invasion and continuing presence in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and Washington's failure to demand a halt to Israel's 2006 air war against Hezbollah in Lebanon all deepened Arab disillusionment with the United States, sending its prestige and moral authority plummeting to historic lows in this region.

There is a palpable sentiment in the Arab world that America must return to practicing the universal ideals that it says it stands for, not just for America's sake, but for everyone else's sake too. If America doesn't live up to those ideals, this line of reasoning goes, then why should others bother with them?

This helps explain why Middle Eastern eyes are now on "Abu Hussein."

That's how some young Saudis refer to Obama, who doesn't really qualify for this Arabic-style nickname -- "Father of Hussein" -- because he has no son. Hussein is a male name meaning "handsome."

But it's an indication of the sense of ownership that some young Arabs felt about Obama that they gave him this endearment, using his middle name. His Kenyan heritage, brown skin, Muslim father, and Arabic middle name all suggested to them that he might be more sympathetic to Arab views than past U.S. presidents.

But in the still smoldering rubble of Gaza, those expectations are now on hold.

And sober voices warn that U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so embedded in the U.S. political system, particularly the U.S. Congress, that it won't change no matter who occupies the White House.

As a result, ambivalence seems to be trouncing hope right now.

"When I see him I think this man looks honest...that if he says he will do something, he will do it," Al Hassawi said of Obama.

"But on the other hand, it's not up to him. Yes, he is the president of America, but he's not running America alone. There is the Congress. There is the people...So I'm not very optimistic...because he's just a part of the whole picture. I know that it takes a very brave man to change things, and I'm not sure if Obama will be this brave man or not."

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