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.
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.