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Arab Media Grade Obama's Performance as Commander in Chief

New America Media, Q&A, Sandip Roy Posted: Dec 29, 2009

Editor's Note: Much was made of President Obama's speech at Cairo University in Egypt last June. It was taken as a signal of a new approach in Washington towards the Arab world and the Middle East. As 2009 winds to a close with the President promising 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, how is the Arab media grading Barack Obama on his first year in office? Jamal Dajani is Director of Middle East Programming for Link TV, which produces the Mosaic program. He talked to NAM editor and host of New America Now radio, Sandip Roy.

If you take some of the key areas in the Middle East such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, in which area has there been the most notable shift from the Bush years?

If we take a look at President Obama's speech, it was full of promises and hope. Early on, he sent a very strong and powerful message to the Arab and Muslim world that he was going to usher in a new era. This was music to everyones ears. But if we look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he had a strong statement against settlements in Israel, but then he backed off and then we've seen the situation deteriorate to a stalemate. The Palestinians and the Israelis are not even talking. In Iraq, we have a promise of a withdrawal. Let's take a look at a timeline during 2009: Attacks in Kirkuk, attacks in Baghdad, attacks in Mosul. Death and destruction. You cannot measure things by a number. If you go back to the presidential elections, the debate over whether the surge was working or not was a key issue between him and McCain. Now we are talking about a surge in Afghanistan while we still see the effects of war in Iraq. In other words, the surge had a temporary effect and now he wants to replicate that in Afghanistan. So, what Obama has said and what he has delivered are two totally different things. People are seeing that now.

Has the first year of the Obama presidency and his policies in the Middle East provided similar fodder for Arab cartoonists in the way that the Bush administration did?

They don't have the material like they had during the Bush years. They don't have Cheney and Rumsfeld. Nevertheless, we've seen funnier and more negative cartoons. In the past couple of months with his declaration to send more troops to Afghanistan, I've been seeing cartoons of a caricature of a half face Obama and a half face Bush. They are tying the two together. He said one thing early on and now his policies are becoming like Bush. There are also many cartoons about him winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I distinctly remember one cartoon showing him in a very large pair of pants, and the writing said, Obama will grow into his peace prize pants.

Has al-Qaida had to change strategies at all over this year given that President Obama tried to reach out to the Arab world?

I feel there is a distinct separation between how this administration has been thinking vis-a-vis al-Qaida, and what the Arab world thinks of al-Qaida. Most people in the Arab world think that this is a virtual organization. I read a report that said there [are] no more than 300 al-Qaida members between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are maybe 100 left in Afghanistan, 200 or 300 migrated into Pakistan. We keep talking about al-Qaida as if that justifies the war against Iraq and the death of almost a million people, in addition to all the money and expenditure and the death of American and Afghan people in Afghanistan because we are chasing after this phantom of Osama bin-Laden, an individual who has been in hiding for eight years and we have not succeeded in capturing or killing him. Now, Obama wants to take us back to square one. We are going to start all over again. It does not add up.

How is the current situation in Iraq being reported in the Arab media?

The Arab media reports almost daily on the situation in Iraq and it's not a pretty picture. I feel that Iraq has disappeared off the American media map. We hardly talk about Iraq unless you have a major attack there. They have an election that was postponed. There is now a debate going on. It's going to happen. No one is talking about the death toll on the Americans and the Iraqis. We know that Obama has plans to withdraw from Iraq, but nobody is talking about what is going to happen in Iraq. If we are still with the coalition, we still have more than 150,000 troops in the country. Yet, there is no security whatsoever. We are seeing attacks inside and outside the Green Zone. We are seeing attacks against ministers and the police. Some reports suggest an inside job within Iraqi security forces, who are turning their guns against their bosses. So now when we talk about withdrawal in another 12 or 18 months, it's not feasible. How is President Obama going to answer that when he takes and draws all our attention and resources into Afghanistan? Can you imagine what will happen in Iraq and to the coalition if the U.S. totally withdraws? It is going to be total chaos.

After the hope engendered by the speech in Cairo, is there currently an atmosphere of cynicism and despair?

I think there is an atmosphere of confusion. One thing you have to remember: there is a major difference in treatment towards Obama vis-a-vis President Bush. Bush came across as a cowboy. He did not articulate his policy. People in the Arab world listen to President Obama and he articulates everything clearly. They see his interviews, whether on American or Arab TV, and they like the man. I speak to people all the time and they genuinely like the person that they see and what he says. But then they see him on Oprah giving himself a B+ grade. They give him an A on personality and sincerity. But on action, they give him an F.

What action does the Arab media want President Obama to take?

I think the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the oldest conflict in the entire region, is still the most important issue on the table. It keeps coming back. Even though it might not be the most important issue today, a year or two years from now it comes back. People want to see closure and an end to this issue. They have hope that Obama will play a more balanced position between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The other thing that we have been seeing is the lack of security throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Across the board, we forgot to talk about what is going on in Yemen between the Houthis [militant groups] and the Yemeni Government, and the Saudis. The other factor -- and that's a repercussion of what happened in the U.S. -- is the economy. They also suffer from the poor economy. We saw what happened recently in Dubai. The aftershock of what happened in the U.S. is now being felt very strongly in the Arab world. The Arab world also has the highest number of unemployed young people under the age of 24 than any other area in the world as far as I have seen. A lot of things are on the table. Obama was going to usher in a new world. His words are sweet, but the people have not tasted the results.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Transcribed by Andrew Berry

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