When Barack Obama assumed the office of President of the United States eight years ago, he symbolised a new hope for many members of the Arab world and beyond. He was starkly different than any previous US president. He was black, had Islamic roots through his father, and ultimately represented a new pathway for relations between the Muslim world and the United States. Within months of taking office he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Globally, he was quickly adored for his liberal foreign policy outline and humanistic approach to the office.
In 2009 Obama delivered a speech in Cairo, Egypt that expressed his interest in calming hostilities between the Western and Islamic worlds. His words were blatant about the regular mistreatment of the Muslim community both historically and in the contemporary world. He also acknowledged the distrust that many Americans felt after the events of 9/11 towards the Islamic community; many perceived Islam as a hostile and violent religion, letting the actions of a few represent the whole community. His words made the Egyptian audience feel as if he was on their team. ‘And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,’ Obama said in his 2009 speech. In large part, it is arguable that he did just that. For example, he attempted to change the rhetoric that is often assigned to terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda and ISIL, always steering clear of terms such as ‘Islamic terrorism.’ He stated again in 2016 that his administration and American citizens alike should always be careful to ‘not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world.’
Yet the intention of the speech surpassed Obama’s hope to repair America’s distorted perception of Islam. He said, ‘I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based on mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.’ While some academics and scholars were sceptical, wanting his actions to meet his emotive rhetoric, the vast majority praised him for the delivery of this historic speech that they hoped would shed the tensions to at least some extent between the Arab world and America. Obama addressed many of the crises that were taking place including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and the need for the American alliance with Egypt. He outlined plans to boost the Afghan economy and build infrastructure in Pakistan. All his goals were filled with a hope for greater cooperation and support from the US government to its Arab allies.
So now, eight years later, where does the United States stand with the Muslim world? Despite persistence in attempting to change American understanding, it became clear with the election of Donald Trump that much of the fear and negative perceptions of Islam remain highly prevalent amongst the American population. Additionally, it is objectively clear that the Middle East today remains in distress. Even after 30 years of peace negotiations, we are sadly no closer to a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than in 2008. Many argue that Obama missed opportunities to take the reins, taking a back-seat position to the United Nations, in developing peace through a two-state solution. Syria has broken out into a disastrous and grossly violent civil war, now involving nations all over the world. There are just under 5 million registered Syrian refugees and over 6 million people displaced internally. The chaos in this region has increased significantly in the past few years of Obama’s presidency alone.
Additionally, many Egyptians are severely disappointed with the Obama Administration, especially after he cut off military aid to them in 2013. Despite re-releasing this military aid in 2015, he still cut off the cash flow financing that Egypt had been relying on from America. This came as a shocking change in behaviour towards one of America’s leading Arab allies and represented a shift in US-Egyptian relations. The Obama administration’s indecisiveness towards Egypt stemmed from struggling with how it wanted to view Egypt; either as a ‘strategic partner’ or ‘brutal atrocity.’ Such indecisiveness could never aid in stability. Furthermore, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has grown stronger and larger, killing both Muslims and non-Muslims alike globally. These things are some of the few that define the chaos that the Middle East has been left in after Obama left office.
Though at the time a beacon of hope, the speech that Obama made in Cairo may have set him up for perceived disappointment. Many scholars call Obama’s leadership in regards to the Arab world a failure, yet they cannot always provide solutions that aren’t retrospective by nature. Though at first glance it is easy to label Obama’s foreign policy towards the Middle East a failure, this does not acknowledge all the other complex constraints that were placed on Obama’s presidency. It is arguable that Obama behaved the way he had to in order to maintain the international structure. Additionally, the true amount of responsibility that the President of the United States has in regards to international peace is still up for debate. While some Americans believe it is their nation’s duty to fix the world’s problems, others think taking a back seat approach to other nations’ conflict is better. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Conflicts and chaos in the Arab world are complex in nature and historically rooted. In many ways, they are issues that almost no part of the Western world can take a fully informed position.