Editor’s Note: In an interview with France24.com, Khaled Elgindy examined how a U.S. president who initially inspired hope among Arabs failed to meet expectations.
F24: The new poll shows Obama to be very unpopular in the Arab world. What are the major sources of disappointment?
Khaled Elgindy: There was obviously a lot of hope when he came in, huge expectations that Arabs and other Muslims had of him. The disappointment reflected in the poll is partly due to the fact that he didn’t live up to expectations. But it’s also because the expectations were exaggerated to begin with – and not just in the Arab world.
In the Arab world, the expectation was that he would do more on the Palestinian issue, which is, of course, a unifying theme in the minds of Arabs. From an Arab point of view, Obama has been consistently bad on that issue, even though in some Israeli circles he has also been seen as abandoning Israel.
Arabs are disappointed because, on the ground, policy has not really changed from the Bush era. Obama has not even reached the most minimal expectations of Arabs. There is a sense that he’s shown disregard for Palestinian government and Palestinian needs, and that it’s a very paternalistic relationship that the US has with Palestinians.
That stands in stark contrast to how the US has adapted its policies in the wake of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, the US has done a fairly good job in adapting to dramatic changes. Even though the president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration had a very thoughtful approach to taking into account new Egyptian public opinion and sensibilities. There has been no such consideration when it comes to Palestinian politics.
F24: When we say Obama elicited a lot of hope, was that hope among regular Arabs or also among Arab diplomats and leaders?
Elgindy: Both. I don’t know what exactly diplomats and leaders were thinking, but anecdotally, I would say that part of the hope came from the fact that people were relieved that Bush was gone. Obama is someone who doesn’t look or talk like Bush. That pushed expectations even higher. So a lot of it was just relief, because from an Arab point of view, Bush was responsible for a lot of harm: in Iraq, Palestine, and in the Muslim world. So now, they’re saying: “We thought this guy would be really different from Bush, but he’s actually pretty similar — not in the things he says, but in the things he does.”
[The resignation of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell] is surprising news, which seems to have caught everyone off guard. He doesn’t appear to have shared this news with his ambassadors, who were in Washington last week for a global chiefs of mission conference. His deputy is also slated to retire soon, which raises question of near term leadership on European policy at a time of challenges there.
[Wess] Mitchell was a strong supporter of NATO, particularly in Eastern Europe where he will be sorely missed. His departure comes follows the resignation of senior Pentagon officials – Robert Karem and Tom Goffus – working on NATO along with Secretary Mattis. Without this pro-alliance caucus, NATO is now more vulnerable than at any time since the beginning of the Trump administration.