Story by Anthony Savvides // Photo by Matt Kauffman
AMMAN, Jordan – This November, the United States will elect a president, and while many American pundits believe Obama will remain in the White House for a second term, some in the Middle East would welcome a change.
Many here believe that Obama has been a disappointment, failing to deliver on early promises to push for a policy shift in the region.
“The Arabs have been very disappointed with him because when he [became] president, the first thing he said when he was sworn in was that he was going to set up a Palestinian state,” said Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism. “Then he had the Cairo declaration, and we all thought he was going to make a difference, but nothing happened.”
In Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, entitled “A New Beginning,” he tried to reestablish strong ties between the American and Arab worlds. Many in the region were hopeful – for change, a new attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and, indeed, a new beginning. But people here wonder why that “new” approach never seemed to become a reality.
As the years passed, the tide shifted back to mistrust. Obama famously said in his Cairo address that the US would not “turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.” But Arab observers say that Obama never followed through, and policies in the region have remained as they always have been: pro-Israeli.
“I don’t believe in liberal theories of the person as president,” said Sara Ababneh, professor of political and international relations in the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “The US is an imperial power, and that’s how they act [in the region]. As a superpower, [the US] does what it needs to do.”
Distrust of the US has deep roots: The American government supported the establishment of the Israeli state and, over the years, offered its support with billions of dollars and political muscle. There have been efforts to mediate peace, some more dramatic than others. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton coaxed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yassar Arafat to shake hands during a ceremony. The moment, hailed at the time, is now considered no more than a symbolic snapshot of an unrealized hope for prolonged peace.
But the Obama administration has made attempts to achieve progress in the region. The US has pressured Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and to release Palestinian refugees. In a speech in May 2011, Obama spoke of the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.
This angered Israeli leaders, who have resisted these calls. In the Middle East, though, Obama’s unexpected declaration was seen as something else: not enough.
“A lot of [Arabs] didn’t believe he has the inclination to change anything,” said Majd Muhsen, 36, a Palestinian-Jordanian who works as a freelance translator for the United Nations and various organizations in Amman. “Most of us don’t believe in the 1967 borders, anyway. All of Palestine, which is now Israel, should go back to being Palestine.”
The lack of follow-through from the United States has left many in the Middle East questioning whether Obama can really bring about change. Protests in the area have spread since 2010, when the Arab Spring began.
“The good thing about the Arab Spring is that it didn’t matter what the US was saying,” added Ababneh. The people of the Arab world wanted change in their lives and the way in which they are governed, and foreign intervention was inconsequential.
As another election draws near, the Arab world is watching, waiting for a result. The general public in Jordan believes that America will not reelect Obama, and are ready to embrace Mitt Romney as a new player on the international level. Of course Romney has already spoken of reaffirming America’s support for Israel and toughening the country’s stance on Iran. He also has a friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dating back to the mid-1970s.
In that spirit, some in the Arab world argue that despite who wins the White House in November, American politics toward the region are static, and stagnant.
“Jordan is held hostage – hostage by the Israelis, with the Palestinian issue, the Americans are holding us hostage, and the Saudis also are holding us hostage,” said Ayoud Abu-Dayyeh, a civil and structural engineer in Amman who does work to lobby against nuclear power in Jordan.
Obama has let the Arab world down, according to many in Jordan. His administration and actions over the course of his term have inspired a different kind of hope in the region—the hope of change.
“Nothing happened in the past four years but a stalemate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, so I believe that Obama will not and cannot do anything in the future concerning the Palestinian issue,” concluded Abu-Dayyeh. “Therefore, I think anybody else that comes in his shoes will not do any worse. It will either be the same or it will be better. That’s why I think a change is important.”
Some in Jordan, though, are hopeful of Obama’s prospects as a second-term president.
“I think that President Obama went a very long way [on the Palestinian issue]. Only time will tell if he’s reelected, as a second-term president, a last-term president, to restore that moral high ground of tearing down the walls in the minds of others,” said Jordan’s Prince El Hassan bin Talal, regarding the wall in the West Bank. “But to judge a country like the United States in terms of the multitude of challenges, both foreign and domestic, as having succeeded or failed on a foreign policy issue, is not a wise thing to do at this stage.”