WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama isn't living up to his promises in the Middle East, and it's driving Arab attitudes toward the United States to their lowest point in years, analysts say.
In an IBOPE Zogby International poll released last week, respondents in four out of six countries surveyed had a lower opinion of the United States than at the end of the Bush administration in 2008.
The feeling among many in the region is that no American president can bring about change, James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute and a senior adviser at the eponymous polling firm, said Tuesday.
Citing conversations he had in the region during the polling, Zogby said, "There was this sense that it's a fundamentally broken system, that (the U.S.) can't do the right thing."
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Part of the reason were sky-high expectations after Obama's celebrated speech to the Muslim world in 2009 in Cairo.
Arabs believed Obama two years ago when he said he'd change Washington and the world, Zogby told a roundtable at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. Now, a stunning majority — as high as 99 percent of those surveyed in Lebanon and 94 percent in Jordan — said Obama hasn't met expectations.
Even actions that could be construed as constructive, like establishing a no-fly zone over Libya or killing Osama bin Laden, didn't win points. In the poll, the killing of bin Laden actually worsened attitudes. Zogby said it was because those actions reinforced America's image as the bully on the block.
"I use the example of the next-door neighbor (who screws) around with your wife for a couple of years, and then one day trims your bushes and takes your garbage out. You don't say, 'Gosh what a great guy,'" Zogby said.
Of course, U.S. approval ratings in the region have been low for a long time. Arab opinion of the United States rose briefly after 9/11, then dropped with the invasion of Iraq. While favorability surged in many Arab countries when Obama was elected, it was clearly on the wane by 2010.
After the Cairo speech, hopes for a solution for Israel and Palestine were high. Lack of progress on that issue was a chief disappointment, analysts said.
Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution, said that the numbers showed that the "Arab Spring" popular uprisings this year haven't had much of an effect on how Arabs view the U.S. Rather, they continue to view America through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Analysts also said that Obama gave the impression he would change foreign and security policy drastically, while such changes often occur incrementally.
Republicans jumped on the poll and said that Arab countries wanted the George W. Bush administration's more aggressive foreign policy back. Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under Bush, said the Obama administration wasn't supportive enough of freedom in the Middle East and wasn't with the people when they rose up against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.
One poll question asked people to name the greatest obstacles to peace in the Middle East. The top two answers were U.S. interference in the Arab world and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The issues people in the region might welcome help with are pressing needs like the economy, health care and education — not democracy, Zogby said.
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said the message she took from the poll results was: Just stop interfering.
"There was a time when you'd get questions back, like we need you to lead here differently, or we need you to be balanced — that's just gone. Now it's just stay out of it," Berry said. "We are now reduced to interference."
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