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An Afghan protester steps on a U.S. flag during a demonstration in Kabul,

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.

Robert Powell

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

Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. 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.

2 Comments

  1. Get Real

    February 15, 2013

    The writer must be reminded that we’ve been lining the pockets of our so called “friends” like Pakistan for decades and the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars (we tend to forget where that money comes from and that might be better spent right here in America) – we’ve thrown their way over the years – means nothing to them. The friend of our enemy can never truly be our friend, by helping Pakistan – in turn we hurt the war effort on the other side of the border in Afghanistan. Most Americans are Christians and in that part of the world, we will never be welcome, on that basis alone. We don’t discriminate against people of other religions here in the USA – but the same may not be true for Christians in ANY muslim country. Why? Put simply, we’re a country of infidels. Present company excluded, of course (wink).

    An infidel is a person who is ostracized for not believing in God. A person who believes in any religion other than Islam – is viewed as an infidel as well. American values (and our apparent acceptance of homosexuality, and the availability of alcohol in our society just to name a couple) make it nearly impossible to have muslim countries view our country in a positive way. Attacking a muslim country is supposed to, in theory, rally other muslim muslims to Jihad, which is Islam’s answer to an invasion/occupation.. We’ve attacked/invaded 2 muslim countries in the past decade.

    Are we starting to see how this “maybe we could be best friends forever” thing is destined to fail? (wink) Even if we “gave up” Israel, and committed 100% of American taxes for Muslim causes / foreign aid – we could never appease them, nor should we be inclined in that direction.

    Reply
  2. JKF2

    February 14, 2013

    This analysis is a bit utopian and I think wrong; even if Israel did not exist, the problems that we see in the Muslim world are not driven by Israel, as a matter of fact, Israel has become a prime scapegoat to blame, by not just Muslim extremists, but also by other failing states; just look at the blaming of Israel in Venezuela, and even other countries in South America; the issue also is seen in Europe, the suggestion that lists of Jews should be made in Hungary…, Then you can look at the intellectual approach to blaming Israel, and even worse blaming Jews, in the daily discourse of closet ant-semites, just look at the recent case in Britan, and the MP. I am coming to the conclusion, that it is a heredetary tradition, by some groups/people, to blame Israel, by the closet anti-semites and the more open speak about “Jewish lobbies”, or long fingers, Zionist conspiracies, Israeli compacts, etc. Intelectual lack of courage passes the blame on minority entities.
    The problem with many Muslim, and other poorer countries, is that the people are at war between themselves, just look at Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Dubai, etc,etc. The reason is because, no question that Western influence, through the media of the internet, has enebled the young generation to see that there are other ways to live. Women want emancipation, young man want progressive jobs, all want and demmand a better future, and all hold their leaders accountable, and just as in the West, people just no longer are impressed with their religeoous leadership. On the other hand the older generations, in leadership positions, are afraid that the principles of their cultures are being totally erroded, including their religeous aspects; the old power of religion, on the young just does not cut it, just like in the West. Not much that Israel can do about any of this issues; other than serve as the convinient scapegoat, by portraying the state as some how being as the basis of their problems.
    I can argue out all the other points of Ms. Yackee, but I do not want to write a book. Any article that starts by blaming Israel, in my view, is not credible, saddly it is cool to do so.

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