When President Obama strode to the podium at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, he faced a Muslim world bursting with optimism about his middle name — Hussein! — along with his barrier-bashing skin color, and a heart they believed was wide open to their concerns and dreams.
“Assalaamu alaykum,” Obama said, using the traditional Arabic salutation Muslims use to greet one another. “Peace be upon you.”
He called for “a new beginning between the United States” and the world’s billion Muslims. He promised to close the reviled prison at Guantanamo Bay, to “personally pursue” Palestinian-Israeli peace and to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. Obama said he would invest billions in Afghanistan and Pakistan; seek a nuclear deal with Iran; encourage deeper ties in science, education and business; and promote women’s rights.
“It’s easier to start wars than to end them,” he said to applause. “It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. . . . We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning.”
“Barack Obama, we love you,” shouted someone in the audience.
More than seven years later, the romance has withered. Along with some lingering fondness, there are feelings of bitterness and regret, and nagging questions about what might have been.
“They will remember him as the first black president; someone like Muhammad Ali. But not like Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Hisham Kassem, former publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s only independent newspaper.
You can’t hold Obama responsible for what happened in Egypt. Egyptians do determine their fate. . . . [But] Obama has disappointed people more, and that’s what his legacy is. . . . His pledges were for the people to be treated as real human beings with rights and [to] help propel democracy. But if you are still doing deals with corrupt dictators, how does that fulfill your promises?
Wael Eskandar, activist, Egypt
Although much of the world still views Obama favorably, the dominant emotion in the Middle East is disappointment. Just under half of those in Israel and Turkey have confidence in him, according to a 40-nation Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2015. Few expressed favorable views of the U.S. president: about a third of Lebanese, 15 percent of Palestinians and 14 percent of Jordanians.
Saleh Mohammed Saleh, an Afghan legislator from Kunar province, said he and other Afghans were encouraged when Obama reached out just months after his first inauguration. But during the years of Obama’s presidency, Saleh said, both the world and the region had become more unstable. “He claimed credit for killing [Osama] bin Laden and some Taliban leaders, but are we safer than before? Are the world and the U.S. safer? I don’t think so at all. The region is on fire.”
The reasons Muslims give for their disillusionment are almost too many to count: seven years of drone strikes, deepening chaos in Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State, continued violence in Afghanistan, the collapse of Libya, the lack of Israeli-Palestinian progress, ongoing U.S. support for autocratic governments, the failure to close Guantanamo.
I think it was the right decision in terms of protecting the Libyan civilians. But the follow-up after that decision, leaving Libya alone after the fall of the regime, that was the tragic mistake. . . . You let Libya become a hub for terrorists.
Mahmoud Jibril, former opposition leader, Libya
Some see the Iran nuclear deal — something the administration considers a signature foreign policy achievement — as a positive step to keep the ayatollahs in Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. “The idea of minimizing the risk of a nuclear Iran or multilateral intervention against Iran is definitely a plus for the Middle East,” said Amr Adly, a political analyst and researcher with the Carnegie Middle East Center.
But critics in the region — echoing naysayers at home — call the agreement a naïve capitulation that does the opposite, arguing that it simply allows Iran to postpone its nuclear ambitions in exchange for renewed stature in the world and a windfall of billions of dollars that it will use to spread its state-sponsored terror.
Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Saudi Arabia-owned al-Arabiya News Channel, said that he applauded the deal but that Obama should have used the negotiations to pressure Iran on other fronts.
“He was silent on human rights in Iran,” Melhem said. “He did not check, or try to check, Iran’s proxy wars in Iraq and Syria.”
In the first term of Obama, Iraq wasn’t among his priorities. . . . We hope the next American administration will be more serious in supporting Iraq, because now Iraq needs all the support it can get.
Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulloum, parliamentarian, Iraq
And then there is Syria, the Rubik’s Cube of a civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and more than half the population displaced from their homes or scattered as refugees abroad. In Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, it has created a humanitarian nightmare. In Europe, the flow of more than a million fleeing migrants has led to right-wing nationalism with ominous historical echoes.
Obama has defended his early decision to limit support to rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, and the quick erasure of a “red line” drawn over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, as wise restraint. But to many in the region, his actions seemed like dithering.
“Obama allowed human rights violations committed by the Syrian regime to happen every day,” said Melhem Riachi, an analyst who teaches communications at Lebanon’s Holy Spirit University of Kaslik. “This do-nothing policy actually empowered terrorism by aiding the rise of extremist Muslim groups,” he said, and “actually strengthened the [Assad] regime.”
The resulting vacuum in Syria itself allowed the Islamic State to grow from its Iraqi roots. As it has spread its medieval horrors across the region, it has displaced al-Qaeda as the source of inspiration for ultra-violent militants who have struck brutally from Istanbul to Paris to San Bernardino.
Some of the things Obama promised to do, such as the closure of Guantanamo, were blocked by a recalcitrant Congress. He did bring the troops home from Iraq, and billions have been spent in Afghanistan. Yet both those countries remain at war. And despite years of effort, there has been no substantive improvement to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
I think it is very clear as far as the Palestinians are concerned, the Obama administration has been a huge disappointment.
George Giacaman, university professor, Palestinian territories
The Arab Spring, which brought hope to millions in the Middle East as well as to the Obama administration, limps on in Tunisia, where it began. But it lies in ruins in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and beyond.
Laying the region’s manifold problems at Obama’s doorstep grossly oversimplifies some of the world’s most complex and confounding dynamics. And the complaints follow a familiar historical pattern: high expectations that the United States can solve a problem, followed by inevitable disappointment when it cannot. Too much intervention. Not enough. Too much emphasis on democracy and human rights. Too little.
“You have this element of association with the Obama administration and anarchy in the region,” said Adly, the Carnegie researcher. “So he’s not that popular at all nowadays. . . . You have this mainstream distrust in whatever the U.S. does, and a gross overestimation for what the U.S. can do. . . . There is definitely a disenchantment with Obama.”
Embers of hope still glow in the hearts of some: Said Ghorayeb, a writer who lives in Beirut, is one of those who still see Obama as the world leader most capable and inclined to ease Muslim suffering.
President Obama brought only negative changes to Afghanistan. A majority of youths are unemployed, security is bad and every day we hear of attacks. The money sent . . . under his presidency went to corrupt government officials, not ordinary people.
Ezmarai Nesari, taxi driver, Afghanistan
“Our country has been burdened so much,” Ghorayeb said of Lebanon. “These refugees — this situation — is a ticking time bomb, and God only knows when it will explode and destroy what is left of one of the few free and democratic countries in the region.”
But Melhem of al-Arabiya said Obama too often is more words than actions. “He’s an honorable man. He’s an extremely gifted and smart man. But he’s not really a fighter.”
“He went to Cairo and he introduced himself to a billion-plus Muslims in the world through a speech. He gives all these difficult speeches on terrorism, on drones, on race, on all of these issues, and they are beautifully crafted,” Melham said. “But you get the impression that he thinks his words are a substitute for actions.”
With reporting from Loveday Morris in Baghdad; Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo; Hugh Naylor and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut; Pam Constable, Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem.