Four years ago, President Barack Obama’s election suggested a newly positive direction in U.S.-Arab relations. Symbolically, his first television interview was with the Saudi-owned channel al-Arabiya. He then traveled to Cairo, Egypt in June 2009 and delivered an inspiring and compassionate speech. He even demonstrated a heightened awareness of the plight of the Palestinians. A renewed sense of hope flooded Arab streets and Obama’s refreshing rhetoric was welcomed with open arms. Following a Bush administration which left ties with the Arab people in disarray, Obama seemed to be saying all the right things and healing a diseased relationship.
Then, as is painfully common in American politics, Obama’s words fell flat. His first-term policy on the Middle East was marked by inaction. He certainly had massive domestic problems to tend to, but that does not excuse his reluctance to tackle the tough issues of the region. His skittish dealings with the Arab Spring offended dictators and opposition movements alike. Despite displaying public disdain for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama sat idly by as Tel Aviv’s government continued to build new settlements and violate international norms.
Remarkably, in spite of the grim picture depicted above, I witnessed an overwhelmingly positive response to Obama’s reelection here at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar. A crowd of predominately Arab students looked on at Obama’s acceptance speech, applauding enthusiastically.
Some analysts explain this reaction as Arabs seeing the president as the lesser of two evils, compared to Romney, who has exhibited a thorough disregard for Arab perspectives. Yet, there is an opportunity for a second-term President Obama to sharpen his policy and improve relations with the Arab world in coming months.
First off, without the prospect of re-election, Obama can become more independent of a Congress which appears determined to represent Israeli interests. By taking a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he could rekindle the peace process and stress the need for moderation on both sides.
In Syria, the chance for the U.S. to assert itself is fading fast. The blurry message offered so far by Obama and his cabinet is a far cry from the type of leadership America has traditionally been known for. Even if a change does not mean fully supporting armed intervention, it would still benefit all parties if the world’s dominant power made its stance on Assad’s regime and the opposition clear.
In terms of defusing the Iranian nuclear crisis, some reassurance from the head of state would calm a crowd of sensational journalists, impassioned hawks and a generally confused populace. Additionally, more open communication with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the remaining Arab states would leave less room for speculation and immoderate voices.
Hopefully, one of President Obama’s New Year’s resolutions will be to construct and articulate a more authoritative policy on the Middle East. As new Arab governments emerge, he should initiate a rallying dialogue with a strengthened commitment to democratic reform, human rights and interfaith discourse. As the people of Damascus, Jerusalem and elsewhere grow increasingly restless, Obama should capitalize on his credibility in the Arab World before it deteriorates further.
Bayly Winder is a junior Political Science major from Princeton, N.J. He is the Middle East columnist for TheNews-Letter.