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Obama’s Legacy Obama and the World

Much of the world views Obama favorably, but the Middle East feels disappointment

Obama’s presidency leaves some Muslims’ prayers for peace unanswered.
On June 4, 2009, President Obama called for a “new beginning” between the Islamic world and the U.S. during a speech at Cairo University. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

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.”

EGYPT -   Anti-Mubarack protestors light fireworks on October 6 Bridge to celebrate  after President Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation in Cairo, Egypt on February 11, 2011.    He's said to have flown to Sharm el-Sheikh with his wife.  ( Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post)
Protesters light fireworks in Cairo to celebrate President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11, 2011. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

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.

(FILES) This photo taken on October 18, 2012 shows two Syrian rebels taking sniper positions at the heavily contested neighborhood of Karmal Jabl in central Aleppo. Manzano, an AFP stringer, was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in New York on April 15, 2013.    AFP PHOTO/FILES/JAVIER MANZANOJavier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images
Two Syrian rebels take sniper positions in central Aleppo on Oct. 18, 2012. (Javier Manzano/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

“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.

TUNIS, TUNISIA - FEBRUARY 26: A protester wearing a Tunisian flag, makes his way past closed shops in the Casbah toward sporadic gunfire in Tunis, Tunisia, on Saturday, February 26, 2011.  (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
A protester wearing a Tunisian flag makes his way past closed shops toward sporadic gunfire in Tunis, Tunisia, in February 2011. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

“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.

This story is part of a virtual museum of President Barack Obama’s presidency. In five parts — The First Black President, Commander in Chief, Obama’s America, Obama and the World and The First Family — we explore the triumphs and travails of his historic tenure.

Room One
The First Black President
Illustrations by James Steinberg
A hopeful moment on race
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Obama’s effort to heal racial divisions and uplift black America
Barack Obama's presidency signaled a "post-racial" America at first, but the racial conflict followed disproved that.

Barack Obama’s watershed 2008 election and the presidency that followed profoundly altered the aesthetics of American democracy, transforming the Founding Fathers’ narrow vision of politics and citizenship into something more expansive and more elegant. The American presidency suddenly looked very different, and for a moment America felt different, too.

The Obama victory helped fulfill one of the great ambitions of the civil rights struggle by showcasing the ability of extraordinarily talented black Americans to lead and excel in all facets of American life. First lady Michelle Obama, and daughters Sasha and Malia, extended this reimagining of black American life by providing a conspicuous vision of a healthy, loving and thriving African American family that defies still-prevalent racist stereotypes.

But some interpreted Obama’s triumph as much more.

SLUG: NA/OBAMA DATE: 10/31/08 CREDIT: Linda Davidson / staff/ The Washington Post LOCATION: Wicker Memorial Park, Gary, IN SUMMARY: Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama holds a rally in Gary, IN. PICTURED: Members of the crowd respond to Obama as he makes his way down the ropeline. Some seek to shake his hand, others want to touch his head, some just want a hug. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Fri Oct 31 23:06:03 2008
Members of the crowd in Gary, Ind., seek to shake the candidate's hand or touch his head as he thanks them for their support in October 2008. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The victory was heralded as the arrival of a “post-racial” America, one in which the nation’s original sin of racial slavery and post-Reconstruction Jim Crow discrimination had finally been absolved by the election of a black man as commander in chief. For a while, the nation basked in a racially harmonious afterglow.

A black president would influence generations of young children to embrace a new vision of American citizenship. The “Obama Coalition” of African American, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American voters had helped usher in an era in which institutional racism and pervasive inequality would fade as Americans embraced the nation’s multicultural promise.

Seven years later, such profound optimism seems misplaced. Almost immediately, the Obama presidency unleashed racial furies that have only multiplied over time. From the tea party’s racially tinged attacks on the president’s policy agenda to the “birther” movement’s more overtly racist fantasies asserting that Obama was not even an American citizen, the national racial climate grew more, and not less, fraught.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS: NOVEMBER 6 -- President Barack Obama is re-elected to office in Chicago, Illinois, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
President Obama is feted in Chicago on Nov. 6, 2012, the night he is elected to his second term as commander in chief. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

If racial conflict, in the form of birthers, tea partyers and gnawing resentments, implicitly shadowed Obama’s first term, it erupted into open warfare during much of his second. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby v. Holder case gutted Voting Rights Act enforcement, throwing into question the signal achievement of the civil rights movement’s heroic period.


Beginning with the 2012 shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, the nation reopened an intense debate on the continued horror of institutional racism evidenced by a string of high-profile deaths of black men, women, boys and girls at the hands of law enforcement.

The organized demonstrations, protests and outrage of a new generation of civil rights activists turned the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into the clarion call for a new social justice movement. Black Lives Matter activists have forcefully argued that the U.S. criminal justice system represents a gateway to racial oppression, one marked by a drug war that disproportionately targets, punishes and warehouses young men and women of color. In her bestselling book “The New Jim Crow,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander argued that mass incarceration represents a racial caste system that echoes the pervasive, structural inequality of a system of racial apartheid that persists.

DENVER, COLORADO: OCTOBER 24 -- A fan hugs President Barack Obama as he works the rope line following a rally at City Park in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
A supporter hugs President Obama as he works the rope line following a rally in Denver in October 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Obama’s first-term caution on race matters was punctured by his controversial remarks that police “acted stupidly” in the mistaken identity arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University’s prominent African American studies professor, in 2009. Four years later he entered the breach once more by proclaiming that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

In the aftermath of racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and a racially motivated massacre in Charleston, S.C., Obama went further. In 2015, Obama found his voice in a series of stirring speeches in Selma, Ala., and Charleston, where he acknowledged America’s long and continuous history of racial injustice.

Policy-wise Obama has launched a private philanthropic effort, My Brother’s Keeper, designed to assist low-income black boys, and became the first president to visit a federal prison in a call for prison reform that foreshadowed the administration’s efforts to release federal inmates facing long sentences on relatively minor drug charges.

Despite these efforts, many of Obama’s African American supporters have expressed profound disappointment over the president’s refusal to forcefully pursue racial and economic justice policies for his most loyal political constituency.

From this perspective, the Obama presidency has played out as a cruel joke on members of the African American community who, despite providing indispensable votes, critical support and unstinting loyalty, find themselves largely shut out from the nation’s post-Great Recession economic recovery. Blacks have, critics suggested, traded away substantive policy demands for the largely symbolic psychological and emotional victory of having a black president and first family in the White House for eight years.


Others find that assessment harsh, noting that Obama’s most impressive policy achievements have received scant promotion from the White House or acknowledgment in the mainstream media.

History will decide the full measure of the importance, success, failures and shortcomings of the Obama presidency. With regard to race, Obama’s historical significance is ensured; only his impact and legacy are up for debate. In retrospect, the burden of transforming America’s tortured racial history in two four-year presidential terms proved impossible, even as its promise helped to catapult Obama to the nation’s highest office.

DES MOINES, IOWA: NOVEMBER 5 -- President Barack Obama wraps up his campaign with a final stop in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, November 5, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
President Obama wraps up his campaign with a final stop in downtown Des Moines on Nov. 5, 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Obama’s presidency elides important aspects of the civil rights struggle, especially the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King, for a time, served as the racial justice consciousness for two presidents — John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Many who hoped Obama might be able to serve both roles — as president and racial justice advocate — have been disappointed. Yet there is a revelatory clarity in that disappointment, proving that Obama is not King or Frederick Douglass, but Abraham Lincoln, Kennedy and Johnson. Even a black president, perhaps especially a black president, could not untangle racism’s Gordian knot on the body politic. Yet in acknowledging the limitations of Obama’s presidency on healing racial divisions and the shortcomings of his policies in uplifting black America, we may reach a newfound political maturity that recognizes that no one person — no matter how powerful — can single-handedly rectify structures of inequality constructed over centuries.

Peniel Joseph is professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Next story from Obama’s Legacy
The speech on race that saved Obama’s candidacy
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was almost derailed after racially charged sermons by his former minister, Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ were released. After initiall downplaying the controversy, Obama faced it head on during his "A more perfect union" speech given in Philadelphia at the National Consitution Center.
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The beer summit
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Crime, justice and race
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Room Two
Commander in Chief
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Perspectives on the president of a nation at war:

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The parade of generals
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We won some good fights and we lost the war.

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One enemy after another
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No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

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The last convoy
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The rise of ISIS
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Weighing intervention
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An army of drones
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Struggle after service
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After the killing of Osama bin Laden,
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Fear at home
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Your fight, your stories
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Room Three
Obama’s America
Illustrations by Thandiwe Tshabalala
Eight turbulent years
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Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

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The price of Obamacare
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A new state of unions
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A cultural shift
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‘Healing the planet’
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What is it like to be the last black president?

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A mark in the wilderness
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Room Four
Obama and the World
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For Muslims, unanswered prayers
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Open hand, clenched fist
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Talking to Tehran
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Closer now – and cigars!
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Friends, adversaries
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A pivot to Asia
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52 trips.
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217 days
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Your worldview
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Room Five
The First Family
Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson
The new modern family
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The Obama family has really uplifted the image of the black family from the moment we saw them.

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He does not walk. He strolls with a black man’s head-up posture.

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Obama’s Legacy
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