Why Obama must do more if he wants to reach out to the Muslim world

The president’s conciliatory words must be matched by action to counter plummeting support worldwide

Barack Obama has reiterated his wish to overcome "suspicion and mistrust" and forge links between the US and the Muslim world.

Speaking in Indonesia, where he spent four years as a child, the president referred to his much-vaunted speech in Cairo last year, which promised a "new beginning" in relations:

In the 17 months that have passed since that speech, we have made some progress but we have much more to do. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust.

He added:

I have made it clear that America is not and never will be at war with Islam . . . Those who want to build must not cede ground to terrorists who seek to destroy.

Though careful to mention his own Christianity, Obama said that al-Qaeda and its affiliates could not claim to lead any religion, "certainly not a great, world religion like Islam".

His words are powerful, and he stressed that he wants the Muslim world to join America in the fight against terrorism. But is this all just empty rhetoric? When Obama came to power, people across the world hoped that he would reverse at least some of the damaging policies of his predecessor. Nowhere was this shift towards optimism more marked than in Muslim countries.

The Brookings Institution's Arab Public Opinion poll questions people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the 2009 poll, conducted early in Obama's presidency, 51 per cent expressed optimism about US policy in the Middle East. In this year's poll, just 16 per cent were hopeful, and a majority of 64 per cent felt discouraged.

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey shows similar results. For the past three years, it has asked whether respondents trust the president "to do the right thing in world affairs". In the Muslim countries surveyed, there was a huge jump in "yes" answers between George W Bush in 2008 and Obama in 2009 – going from just 2 per cent for Bush to 33 per cent for Obama in Turkey – but the figure has now dropped again. "Yes" answers in the five Muslim countries surveyed went up from 12 in 2008 to 33 on average in 2009, but have now dropped back down to 26.6 (note: ratings in individual countries vary substantially).

This is hardly surprising. Expectations of Obama may have been unreasonably high, but he has failed to deliver on the foreign policy that so many hoped for. By authorising a troop surge in Afghanistan, he took ownership of what had previously been seen as Bush's war. He has not delivered on his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, and he seems to have backtracked on torture, rendition and detention.

Obama was right to say that "one speech" can't change years of mistrust. But nor can two, or three, or any number of speeches, if they are not matched by actions that give reason to trust again.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle