By Barry Rubin*
May 17, 2009
Whose the most popular statesman of all?
Here's one of many questions that should be asked everywhere but you might only see it here:
If President Barack Obama actually succeeds in making himself more popular among Arabs and Muslims, what material advantage would it give the United States?
The answer shouldn't be taken for granted. Consider the following points:
--All of these regimes are dictatorships and so popular opinion is of very limited importance.
--Publics are very hostile to America and the West and will not be easily moved by the charm of an American president unless he does things far beyond any possible policy he might follow. Bashing Israel won't transform this opinion.
--The impressions of U.S. policies and leaders among these groups are mediated by state-controlled media which are hostile for reasons of national or regime interests, and intellectual elites which tend to be carriers of either Arab nationalism or Islamism, world views that have a systematic antagonism to the United States.
--Islamists and radicals such as Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhoods view America in all its varieties and guises as an enemy. No matter what Obama says or does they will deem it a trick.
Unless, of course, he gives them concessions in which case they will take them, see him as weak, and give nothing back. That isn't popularity; that's contempt.
--Middle East leaders emphasize a realist, power-oriented model of politics. Obama wanting to be popular is simply incomprehensible to them. At best, they will attribute this to naivete and weakness. Doubting that he will be strong in protecting them they will actually do less for the United States. That isn't popularity; that's fear that you're on the losing side.
So no matter how high Obama gets his popularity in polls-which will be celebrated in the American media and in Washington DC as a great victory-nobody in the region will do more to help him or give him more as a result.
If you need a test experiment for this assertion, think about Europe. Europeans love Obama; Europe is an American ally. European societies are democracies close to America in culture and world view. And yet when Obama asked European countries for cooperation on various issues ranging from economic revival to Afghanistan they gave him nothing.
Being popular is actually an American policy deformation. Bill Clinton thought he'd be popular by bringing a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and saying he felt other's pain. George W. Bush thought he'd be popular by getting rid of repressive dictators and bringing in democracy.
Now Obama thinks he'll be popular by using his color, semi-Islamic background, Third World experiences, and combination of engagement and respect.
International politics isn't high school. Popularity doesn't matter. Or, to put it another way, being able to hit people upside the head can make you seem very popular indeed. Sad perhaps but true indeed.