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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.