After eight years of an on-again, off-again courtship of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims in what he called a “new beginning” between America and Islam, President Barack Obama is leaving office with dashed hopes and disappointed fans in much of the Muslim world.
Obama remains popular around the world, with notable foreign policy achievements: the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the historic resumption of relations with Cuba and the landmark Paris climate change accord.
But as he hands over power Friday to President-elect Donald Trump, Obama’s image in the greater Middle East leaves much to be desired, with a once-enthusiastic Muslim public increasingly disillusioned by the unfulfillment of lofty promises made eight years ago.
“I have never seen such disillusionment with an American president and his policies expressed by people in the region, ordinary citizens as well as public figures,” Hisham Melhem, a prominent analyst for the Al Arabiya news channel, wrote in the Cairo Review.
Obama offered an olive branch to Muslims around the world when he came into office after a controversial Republican presidency.
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he declared in his first inaugural address.
Within a couple of months, he traveled to Turkey “to send a message to the world” and hailed that country’s legacy of a “strong, vibrant, secular democracy.”
“The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” he told the country’s parliament.
The pinnacle of Obama’s Muslim diplomacy came two months later in Cairo.
“I’ve come here … to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition,” he declared.
He pledged to pull American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, support the creation of a Palestinian state, close the controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay, recognize Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power and back democratic change in the region.
The speech was compared to Bush’s “freedom agenda.” But unlike Bush’s widely reviled plan for transforming the Middle East, Obama’s empathetic call for “partnership between America and Islam” won many Muslim supporters.
‘New and fresh’
Mohammed Baharoon, director general of the Dubai Public Policy Research Center, remembers watching the speech and being struck by its fresh language and tone.
“[People] hadn’t seen this kind of a president” before, Baharoon said.”They saw a president who was down to earth, someone who was extending a hand. All of this was quite new and fresh.”
Akbar Ahmed, a leading scholar of Islam at American University in Washington, also watched the speech, but said “it created a lot of problems in my mind because I realized how eloquent, how visionary and how compassionate that speech was.”
“As a Muslim scholar, I knew that across the Muslim world … people would have very high expectations of the new president,” Ahmed said.
Muslim enthusiasm for Obama’s presidency proved short-lived as he struggled to enact most of his promises, and along the way soured on engagement with the region.
Obama was an enthusiastic early supporter of the 2011 pro-democracy Arab Spring movement, but he threw his support behind Egypt’s military regime two years later. His support of a military intervention in Libya in 2011 was hailed by some for preventing civilian casualties, but blamed by many in the region for igniting a civil war that continued years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
In 2011, Obama pulled American troops from Iraq, and in 2014 he ordered an end to combat operations in Afghanistan, but the conflicts intensified and he was blamed for a premature withdrawal from Iraq that led to the rise of Islamic State. Creating a Palestinian state proved stubbornly elusive, despite the appointment of a special envoy and repeated efforts to restart peace talks. The Guantanamo prison remained open even as the U.S. transferred out hundreds of detainees. And across the region, new wars flared up — from Syria in 2011 to Yemen in 2015.
“The outcomes of the eight years … are not very positive,” Baharoon said.
With the region engulfed in war, Obama’s popularity among Muslims dipped even as it soared elsewhere. A June 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that less than 50 percent of Turks, 36 percent of Lebanese, 15 percent of Palestinians, and 14 percent of Jordanians and Pakistanis approved of Obama’s handling of global affairs. There were some notable exceptions, including several Muslim majority African nations as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, where Obama spent his early childhood and remains popular.
As an activist, Obama had called Saudi Arabia and Egypt “so-called allies,” and he never came to embrace them as genuine partners. In later years, Obama privately criticized Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries for exporting extremism to Indonesia. In Egypt, his initial support of the Arab Spring protests was seen as tantamount to an embrace of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and a betrayal of a key American ally.
“In private, I have heard Arab officials express critical views of Obama and his style of leadership bordering on utter contempt,” Melhem said.
Ahmed said the Libyan intervention “burned” Obama, and he called the Syrian conflict “the worst moment” of Obama’s presidency.
“That’s one of the big problems of being the president of the United States,” Ahmed said. “Anything that happens in the world, positive or negative, people trace it to the president and say he’s responsible.”