Obama had told the cheering Arab audience that "there must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground". Image Credit: Reuters

These are not the best of times for Americans, especially their leaders, including President Barack Obama, and Congress, considering the bad state of the economy (the federal debt) and foreign policy, particularly towards the Arab world.

Many are pointing fingers at Obama, or as one headline pointed out, ‘The too-quiet president'. An unidentified Republican, who expects Obama to win a second term in office next year, asked the much-respected Washington Post columnist David Ignatius: "Why does he so often seem to react rather than lead?"

Ignatius, reflecting the views of many in the country, agreed that "the president needs to start acting like a fighter and a leader, rather than a punching bag".

This is certainly the situation vis-a-vis the Arab world where Obama has failed to live up to the expectations raised in his memorable Cairo speech in June 2009, when he pledged "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims", who number 1.5 billion worldwide.

Obama had told the cheering Arab audience that "there must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground".

Even his reaction so far has been mute in the face of the pace-setting Arab Spring where Arab youth were able to rattle Arab autocrats and overthrow two regimes — in Egypt and Tunisia.

Protesters, particularly in Syria, Yemen, Libya, have suffered hundreds of casualties, but there has hardly been any sign of serious change. In fact, the threat of sectarian wars now looms disturbingly over the region.

There was short-lived excitement when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, standing next to Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul recently, called on Syria to allow opposition groups to come together as part of a process of necessary political reform. She then dropped a bombshell when, speaking of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, she declared unexpectedly: "From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy."

Contradictions

This unscripted response to a reporter's question, according to the Washington Post, "was instantly hailed as a shift for the Obama administration which ... has been relatively restrained in its public criticism of Al Assad." But in a television interview, Obama said later, somewhat mildly, "increasingly you're seeing President [Al] Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people".

On the other hand, the Obama administration has been shockingly quiet about whatever Israel does inside Israel and across its ‘borders' with Arab neighbours.

Bradley Burston, senior editor of Haaretz, wrote recently: "There is nearly nothing which more effectively delegitimises Israel — and makes Israel look more like an uncaring blockhead state — than does the siege of Gaza. The siege is one thing that does the work of delegitimisation even better: attacking civilians in order to protect the siege."

Seemingly detached from the turmoil in the Middle East, or the topsy-turvy in Israel, has cost the Obama administration dearly despite earning a Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office.

An opinion poll has dealt him a virtual knockout since it turned out that most Arab countries viewed US policy less favourably today than they did during the last year of the Bush administration.

Even the policies of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were rated unbelievably more positively than those of Obama's in every country polled except Saudi Arabia where 30 per cent of respondents had a favourable view of the US compared to only about 5 per cent of Egyptians, also down from 30 per cent in 2009.

The other four states that were polled — totalling some 4,000 — were Lebanon, Jordan, the UAE and Morocco.

There is no doubt that Obama has to do some serious house-cleaning before he expects to serve a second term. 

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com.