|Obama’s image has been damaged in the eyes of many Arabs [EPA]
It is no secret that many people in the Arab world looked at Barack Obama, the Democratic US presidential candidate, as someone who, if elected president, could bring positive change to US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Such an attitude seemed strong during the presidential primaries, but since Obama’s victory in the primaries last June over Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Arab support for the Illinois senator appears to have faded away.
The main reason is Obama himself.
He has carefully distanced himself from Arab and Muslim issues in the US and abroad over the last six months.
The Democrat has been fighting against a tough negative campaign that has tried to highlight his Muslim roots, foreign name and brief political history to portray him as a “hidden Muslim” who is part of a conspiracy to destroy America from within by electing a Muslim as president.
As part of the campaign, Obama was portrayed as a “closet” Muslim, a pro-Arab and anti-Israeli candidate.
Americans were told that Obama was willing to sit and negotiate unconditionally with America’s worst enemies, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, and that he could not be trusted with the security of the US, nor Israel.
In response, Obama has caved inward and systematically distanced himself from anything Arab or Muslim.
His outreach co-ordinator to American Muslims resigned a few days after his appointment in early August after rumours were circulated in attempts to link him to Muslim extremism.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign refused to let female Muslims supporters, who were wearing headscarves, appear in the same photograph as the Democratic candidate, fearing that their appearance would hurt Obama’s image.
Out of the same fear, the Obama campaign has also failed to organise any serious outreach efforts to Arab or Muslim Americans despite a well-publicised effort to reach out to other minorities, new voters and voting blocs.
On a policy level, the Illinois senator announced his support for Jerusalem as the “undivided” capital for Israel before the powerful Israeli lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), last June.
Obama has also tried to reduce the emphasis on his pro-dialogue approach toward countries such as Iran and Syria and instead assert his willingness to use force in places such Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Senator Joe Biden, Obama’s chioce for vice president, is a self-described “Zionist,” who believes that there can only be progress in the Middle East when “the Arab nations have known that there is no daylight between us [the United States] and Israel”.
Realistic and militaristic
The more realistic, militaristic and pro-Israel Obama has been a disappointment for many Arabs, who hesitantly supported Obama during the primaries due to his different background and rhetorical emphasis on hope, dialogue and “change”.
But, at the end of the day, many Arabs gave up on America and American politics a long time ago.
A poll of Arab public opinion conducted by Zogby international earlier this year found that 70 per cent of the Arab public have no confidence in the US.
It also found that 18 per cent believed that Barack Obama had the best chance of advancing peace in the Middle East, compared with 13 per cent for Hillary Clinton and just four per cent for John McCain.
A Pew survey found that there was “little enthusiasm” for either of the two main presidential candidates in the Muslim world compared with places like Europe.
In Egypt for instance, only 31 per cent have confidence in Obama and 23 per cent in McCain.
Both surveys were conducted in the spring of 2008 and since then Arabs have became more aware of the positions of Obama and McCain toward the major issues that most interest them such as Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Middle East democracy.
Such awareness may have deepened fears that neither candidate is daring enough to transform Washington’s Middle East policy.
Dialogue and diplomacy
Obama generally seems more willing to use dialogue and diplomacy, push the peace process forward and refrain from using force and confrontation than his Republican counterpart.
But Obama’s views on the Middle East are not radically different from his opponent and predecessor.
The Democrat’s plan for Iraq does not put a specific date for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq.
Instead, Obama says he will keep an undetermined number of troops in Iraq for an undetermined period of time to “protect” US interests there – a plan vague enough to keep the door open for a prolonged American presence in Iraq.
On the peace process, he has opposed Palestinian democracy and does not seem to support internal Palestinian dialogue and efforts to encourage unity.
Obama also appears to lack a clear plan for promoting Arab democracy.
He seems opposed to changing Arab governments by force and also seems disinterested in promoting democracy in the region.
He appears willing to support the status quo in exchange for gaining the support of Arab governments in stabilising Iraq and confronting Iran.
Obama has clearly moved right on Arab issues since becoming the Democratic party’s presidential candidate.
No better choice
This is not to say that McCain is a better choice for Arabs than Obama.
McCain appears to be more of a neo-conservative toward the Arab world than George Bush, the incumbent US president.
On Iraq, McCain had been calling for the removal of the government of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, since 1998 – five years before the actual US invasion of the country.
McCain also does not seem to have any interest in moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward and seems to want to empower Israel and to help isolate it from its neighbours, by force if necessary.
This is why McCain quickly supported the isolationist policies adopted by Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, such as the construction of the separation barrier and disengagement from the peace process.
This means that neither Obama or McCain seem to be the right candidate for Arabs.
But some Arab idealists will still support Obama out of hope he may improve and out of fear that a McCain presidency could end up bringing more harm to the region than even the Bush administration.