There is no question that Barack Obama has stirred the world’s imagination. Polls taken in Europe show that if Obama ran against John McCain there, he would win by anywhere between seven percentage points in Russia and 52 points in Belgium. Andrew Sullivan has printed dozens of anecdotes of foreigners breathlessly proclaiming their enthusiasm for Obama. To say that the world is hoping for an Obama victory is putting it lightly.
But it is the Middle East where hopes should be running highest. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush’s swaggering Evangelical Christianity, and the scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay--among many other issues--have Muslims, and especially those in the Arab world, desperate for a change in U.S. leadership. Barack Obama seems almost tailor-made to deliver: He has acknowledged Palestinian suffering in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He had a Muslim grandfather and lived in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. His middle name reminds Muslims not of Saddam, but of the prophet Mohammed’s grandson. And though he is a Christian himself, he is as ruminative about faith as Bush is simplistic. Thomas Friedman, observing the Obama phenomenon from Cairo, wrote that an Obama victory “might mean that being labeled a ‘pro-American’ reformer is no longer an insult here.”
Most Arabs only know Barack Obama’s name and skin color, so, unsurprisingly, they are fairly enthusiastic about his candidacy. But what are Thomas Friedman’s Arab equivalents, the opinion leaders of the Middle East, saying about Obama? A famously diverse group--ranging from idealistic reformers to moralizing Islamists--the Arab world’s pundits are almost unanimous in their skepticism of him, offering a sharp corrective to the narrative of a world united in its ardor for Obama. They have been arguing that he is not so unconventional an American politician when it comes to the Middle East, and that the people of the region have reason to be worried about an Obama presidency.
In the Arab world, one of Obama’s best-known positions was his early opposition to the war in Iraq. In a region where opposition to the war was so widespread, this won him much popularity. But Arab analysts have not missed the fact that Obama has recently been tempering his language on Iraq.
Tariq Alhomayed, writing in the pan-Arab Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, noted in his column entitled “Did Obama Surprise You?” that as the election campaign has gone on, Obama has gone from talking about a “quick” withdrawal to a “cautious” one. Egyptian analyst Abdel Monem Said, in the same paper, argued that since both candidates suffer from the same pressures at home, “the difference between [Obama and McCain on withdrawal] will be in months rather than years.” Raghida Dergham, a New York-based columnist for Al Hayat, another pan-Arab daily, worried that Obama “seems unaware of the complications of Iraq's situation” and Iran’s role there, warning of the danger of Obama’s ignorance about the Iraqi government’s “necessary and natural allegiance to Tehran.”
While the facts on the ground, both military and political, may constrain Obama’s Iraq options, Arab analysts held more hope for his Iran policies. Despite the fact that most Arabs dislike and distrust their Shia Persian neighbor, many members of the Arab intelligentsia were pleased to see Obama willing to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. But they were again disappointed when, under electoral pressure, Obama hedged on this issue, tempering his promise with fine distinctions between “preparations” and “preconditions.”
His shift was not lost on analysts like Atef Ghamri, an Egyptian commentator in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, who lamented the “inconsistencies” in Obama’s position on Iran. “[Obama] explained that he wants to draw the international community into conducting negotiations with [Iran] in the style of the negotiations seeking rapprochement with China lead by Henry Kissinger,” Ghamri noted. “But then Obama went back on himself by announcing that there is no greater threat to Israel than that of Iran.” Shamlan Yousef Essa went further in the Kuwaiti Al-Watan, claiming that “Obama’s talk of the danger of Iran is an attempt to intimidate the Gulf states,” who are increasingly worried about Iran, into allying with the U.S.
But the souring of Arab opinion-leaders against Obama has primarily revolved around his Israel platform. His recent speech to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, caused particular dismay. He promised to maintain billions in military aid to Israel, and said that “undivided” Jerusalem must remain Israel’s eternal capital. The recriminations from Arab opinion pages were swift. In Al Sharq Al Awsat, journalist Nazir Majali dolefully noted that “Obama’s words were more biased towards Israel than the speeches you hear at Likud conferences.” In Al Masri Al Yawm, an Egyptian newspaper, Wahid Abdul Majid dismally predicted that Obama’s rhetoric on Israel will become more belligerent because “Obama feels he is weak as a result of the suspicions raised around his affiliations, his family, and the Muslim identity of his father.”
Arab intellectuals understand that Obama has to play politics. In another article for Al Hayat, Dergham argued that “as he addressed AIPAC, Obama realized that he must win the Jewish vote and that Jewish support is crucial if he is to win the White House.” But she went on to say that his promises of $30 billion in aid to Israel and his position on Jerusalem “will surprise many in the Middle East who have been betting on qualitatively different positions from Barack Obama with respect to the Palestinian question and Israel.”
Most Arab columnists writing about Obama have concluded that the exigencies of American politics undermine any efforts by politicians to change the country’s foreign policy in the region. “With every American election, Arabs investigate the potential presidents, while forgetting that every American president who enters the White House will be governed by American interests and by the information that is presented to him,” Alhomayed wrote. “Our problems have been left to us to deal with, and we are the biggest losers.”
Still, not every Arab commentator is a skeptic. Some, such as a starry-eyed Hussein Shobokshi in Al Sharq Al Awsat, have gone as far saying that Obama’s nomination means that the Middle East is “only one chapter away from a happy ending.” The idea that some might consider him a “Muslim apostate,” as Edward Luttwak controversially proposed in The New York Times, has been notably absent from Arabic op-ed pages. But the Middle East’s opinion-makers have found enough other reasons to be concerned. Change Arabs can believe in? Unlike their American counterpart, the Arab world’s Thomas Friedmans are wary of being too optimistic.
Josie Delap is an editor for Economist.com, based in London. Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for Economist.com, based in New York.
By Josie Delap and Robert Lane Greene