With fresh anti-American sentiment growing in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Economist Intelligence Unit expert Robert Powell offers some thoughts on what President Barack Obama could do to counter the trend. Powell spoke with VOA’s Susan Yackee.
Yackee: What does President Obama need to do to improve his image in the Middle East and North Africa?
Powell: It’s hardly a new phenomenon that President Obama’s lofty rhetoric has been dashed by reality. So, I think it’s no great shock that people in the Middle East have been somewhat disappointed just like some arguably have within the United States. But if he is going to rectify the situation – and, certainly, the U.S.’ standing now is pretty close to what it was when George W. Bush was at the top – then you could imagine three key things that would have to be addressed, all three of which, if one was being unsympathetic, the president can do very little or nothing about.
First of all – and it’s a long-held cliché – the Israel issue is a burning sore within the region, and the U.S. has really done very little to distance itself from Israel, even though, on a personal level, President Barack Obama has a difficult relationship, to put it generously, with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu. Overall, there has been virtually no movement in pushing Israel on some of the key issues that Palestinians and others have complained about over decades – settlements and the like. So, a more forceful approach toward Israel would at least attract attention within the region that the U.S. is maybe, maybe aligning itself more with their argument. But U.S. politics is [about] attitudes and [one] cannot expect a massive shift. But there might be a surprise, of course. Obama will be visiting the area soon.
Then, the other areas – perhaps if the U.S. was to flood some of these countries with cash. Egypt might be one that has been struggling terribly economically since its own Arab Spring and the fall of [former president Hosni] Mubarak, and its economy basically stagnated. The money, though, that has been provided for the Central Bank and the Egyptian government, the vast, vast majority has come from Saudi Arabia and others. The U.S. simply does not have much money. There is not much to get around. We have our own fiscal difficulties within the United States and certainly cannot prop up other countries in the Middle East with a few billion dollars.
“…three areas really would need to be addressed: first – Israel, second – cash, third – hypocrisy, if President Obama was to turn around the United States’ reputation in the Middle East.” – Robert Powell, Economist Intelligence Unit
And, then, thirdly, the old charge that has been around about U.S. hypocrisy. The U.S. talks a good game, as indeed does President Obama, about supporting freedom within the region, about backing democrats but in reality, when push comes to shove, it will often align with old regimes, and when you do see the United States selling 60 billion dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia, when you see the U.S. offering nothing more than a concern when Bahrain cracks down on peace activists, when it jails opposition leaders, when it bans demonstrations, then that charge of hypocrisy is really alive and well. And as much as we have seen a more sophisticated foreign policy under President Obama in dealing with the changing realities within the region, the charge remains and it still remains a reality, unfortunately.
So those three areas really would need to be addressed: first – Israel, second – cash, third – hypocrisy, if President Obama was to turn around the United States’ reputation in the Middle East.
Yackee: One place where the Obama administration’s hands are a bit tied is in Egypt, where he does not want to interfere with the infant government that is being formed there. But, on the other hand, the protesters feel that they need his support. What can you do there?
Powell: This is something that President Obama touched on in his State of the Union address; that actually is a very, very difficult line to tread. No one wants to be overtly interfering with another country’s wishes, but on the other hand you want to ensure that those that are at least aligned with you sensibilities are in charge – and that’s at times an impossible line to tread.
Clearly, with Egypt the U.S. does not have a huge amount of influence. Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt, has become increasingly authoritarian having initially tried to distance himself from party politics having sat and come done firmly on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood from where he hailed originally. Probably the one piece of advice, it would at least be to get involved at all. It was noticeable that after Mohamed Morsi won the election – it was a close election – and became the leader of Egypt, he met China’s president, he met the Iranian president but he never met the U.S. president. And you can’t really have an influence if you’re not going to meet the people who are in charge. So, a more proactive effort to meet the new leaders, meet those shaping the situation on the ground, would at least give the U.S. a chance to shape the policy environment and perhaps, perhaps, improve its image within the region.
Yackee: Meanwhile in Syria, the opposition is really frustrated in its fight against the government, but the Obama administration says no-no to giving the rebels arms, directly arming them. Should that policy change or should we just stay where we are concerning Syria?
Powell: I think in this case a lot of people would have sympathy with the U.S.’ position. Even though the rebels did form something called the Syrian National coalition – they coalesced, if you will into a single group – in reality, on the ground, it’s a very fragmented story with all kinds of different groups with local leaders, barely coordinated. So, when you provide weapons to one side, you really have no idea in whose hands they will end up. There are now an increasing number of Salafis, of puritanical Islamist fighters who are increasingly taking the lead in the war in Syria – in fact they recently took a very large airbase near Aleppo – and the U.S. would be concerned about weapons that are going in ending up in these peoples’ hands. Of course, there are some very instructive lessons in recent history – in Afghanistan where the U.S. supplied weapons to the mujahedin, and the, of course, not long after they turned against the United States itself. So, they are careful to avoid history repeating itself there. So, directly arming rebels there, even though they have a great need for arms and their calls for greater support are well placed and, in fact, ever urgent, for the United States actually realizing that, actually meeting these requests, is fraught with danger. And probably the U.S. would have to retain a backseat role, even though in that case it means diluting its influence.
Listen to Susan Yackee’s interview with Robert Powell:
Susan Yackee is anchor and producer of VOA's audio podcast, Middle East Monitor. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.