“Is the Obama thing real? Does he really have a chance? Will the American people ever elect a black president? During my recent travels to several Arab countries, I encountered these questions from all sides. For many, the outcome of the Democratic primaries delivered a clear answer: Yes, Barack Obama actually has a shot at the presidency. Most Arabs anticipate that the upcoming presidential election will have a negligible impact on US policy toward the Middle East. Partisan politics aside, they believe the overall tone of American foreign policy will remain unchanged; no politician can single-handedly revolutionize the political constraints that shape American policymaking. Yet Obama’s candidacy has spurred a hopeful group of Arabs who believe that a Democratic victory this fall could mark a turning point in American foreign policy. Millions of Muslims who might otherwise have taken an indifferent view toward US politics are enthusiastically tuning into the elections to watch a black man with Muslim heritage compete to become president of the United States. Obama’s appeal in the Arab world is both evident and elusive. The unexpected nomination of a candidate with Muslim roots by the American people carries an obvious symbolic value. Many embrace this as a harbinger of solidarity between Americans and the Muslim world. Moreover, young Arabs and Muslims hear promise for their own societies in Obama’s campaign slogan of “hope and change. To them, Obama’s message heralds progress both in American policymaking and at home. Neither Senators John McCain nor previous candidate Hillary Clinton has garnered even a fraction of Obama’s support among Arabs. Saudi writer Abdul Malek Salman summarized Arabs’ perceptions of McCain, writing, “His conceited attitudes and foreign policy mirror those of the Bush administration and would likely prolong the era of Bush’s hated policies. Clinton didn’t fare much better, despite positive perceptions of her husband Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency. The concept of family dynasty doesn’t poll well among Arab populations due to its association with corruption and political repression. This is particularly relevant in 2008 with upcoming presidential elections in Egypt, which many fear will result in a planned victory by the current president’s son, Gamal Mubarak. Liberal Egyptian thinker Ahmed Al-Mouslemany reflected the dominant sentiment that family dynasty has no place in democracy with his endorsement of Obama as “the only way to avoid repeating the family rule! While Obama works to distance himself from his Muslim heritage on the American political frontlines, some in the Middle East assume that he will hold pro-Arab political views because of his background. But statements made by the senator during his speech at last month’s AIPAC conference proved that this is a misconception. His assertions that he “will strongly urge Arab governments to take steps to normalize relations with Israel, that “Egypt must cut off the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, and that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided prompted unhappy reactions from the Arab world. Even so, among American politicians, Obama alone wins enough favor with Arab commentators to be forgiven for endorsing typically shunned US policies. They mistakenly assume that his background is a political handicap, which forces him to run on a platform of safe positions on key issues, including American support for Israel. Obama’s campaign success is great news for America’s international image.
Electing a president of African heritage could prove to be America’s ultimate defense against attacks from its critics, and an effective strategy in the push to win hearts and minds in the Arab world. If he is elected, Obama’s message will become an international inspiration. This is especially true in the Middle East, where populations exasperated by poverty and corruption covet increased civil liberties and functional democracy. A senior Arab diplomat in Washington captured this idea succinctly: “America does not deserve a president like Obama. The US-Islamic World Form, hosted in February by the Brookings Institution in Qatar, featured a mock poll of around 200 Muslim delegates from across the Islamic world on the US presidential candidates. Obama won in a landslide. Arabs and Muslims are under the delusion that the right American president would dramatically alter the Middle Eastern political landscape in their favor. Both Obama’s congressional record and his campaign rhetoric represent mainstream American views on Middle Eastern issues. If elected president, his foreign policy objectives would be consistent with those of past American presidents. Wishful Arabs should modify their expectations. Aside from his early rejection of the Iraq War, his actions have never indicated a dramatic departure from American political norms. Obama’s candidacy carries heavy symbolic value, but little hope for real change in American foreign policy in the Middle East. Mohamed Elmenshawy is editor in chief of Taqrir Washington and Arab Insight, projects of the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C. Email: [email protected]