Time Magazine’s selection of President Barack Obama as Person of the Year for 2012 should not come as a surprise, after all, Obama’s presidency is by all measures a historic one.
From an American perspective, Obama’s rise to power as a man of color and a minority represents deep social, cultural and demographic changes in American society without which Obama’s presidency would still be a dream.
As Time editors noted in their report, Mr. Obama garnered the majority of the minority vote which was the decisive factor that put him back in the White House for four more years. President Obama’s might deserve his new title for many reasons here at home, but from an Arab perspective, he does not deserve the title. For his perceived negative inaction exceeds his positive actions.
Until two years ago, change in the Arab World seemed almost impossible if it wasn’t for a street vendor in Tunisia named Mohammad Bouazizi who, by setting himself alight, ignited a revolution that swept several countries in the Arab world. It is true, moreover, that Bouazizi was the catalyst for the Arab Spring, but it was, much like Obama’s America, the deep social, economic changes that occurred in the Arab world that were its true causes. It was mainly economic deprivation, lack of freedom and hope that needed Bouazizi’s spark to set the Arab Spring in motion.
The election of president Obama in 2008 was perceived as a sign of relief and great hope in the Arab World. The idea, it was thought then, was that a man with Obama’s background might be able to right America’s historic tilt against the Arab causes as far as its support for Arab dictators and its bias toward Israel. This was especially true after eight long years of the President George W. Bush administration that embarked on a foolish mission of “nation-building” in the Middle East but ended up destroying one of its most ancient and its most modern nations, Iraq.
Obama’s record in the Arab world is mixed at best. This is despite that he started off his first presidency with high hopes that he would achieve a breakthrough in the Arab Israeli conflict. But his efforts in that direction did not pan out after he realized that, when it comes to pressuring Israel, even the president of the United States might find himself with very limited power.
But the biggest disappointment in Obama’s presidency, from an Arab perspective, was his lackluster support for the revolting Arab citizens particularly in Egypt and Syria. At the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, Obama’s administration seemed hesitant as to whether it should support the demonstrators or back America’s long-time ally and dictator Hosni Mubarak. Even though Obama eventually supported the Egyptian revolution, it was viewed then as a disingenuous move that was made only to support U.S. interests.
The same dynamics exist today as many Egyptians suspect that the Obama administration is backing the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammad Mursi, who is the first ever democratically elected president of Egypt. Much like Obama’s first term, President Mursi is presiding over a divided country in transition, but without the benefits of the strengths and stability of the American political system. Ironically, President Mursi made Time’s short list of the person of the year, but his inability to steer Egypt to safety after his election and his perceived divisive decisions cost him the venerable title.
Moreover, the bloody conflict in Syria also did not win Obama any points in the Arab World. The raging conflict that cost tens of thousands of innocent Syrian lives did not compel the Obama administration to move beyond economic sanctions against the regime of Bashaar al Assad and encourage its Arab and European allies to support the opposition with some military assistance.
Despite misgivings about the United States Middle East foreign policy, especially its limitless backing of Israel at the expense of Palestinians and its Arab allies, Arabs still look at the United States for guidance, support and backing against their dictators.
But if it wasn’t for the wrong timing, had the Arab Spring started during the presidency of George Bush, it would have been the perfect opportunity for the Bush administration to get rid of the dictatorial Arab regimes and support Arab revolutions and would have avoided destroying America’s image in the Arab World.
As a result, President Obama came to power with a mission to change America and to undo Bush’s greatest mistakes in the Middle East, mainly the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama’s political philosophy, in addition, was to end America’s military interventions in the Middle East and dump the nation-building project as well as improve America’s image abroad while direct his energies to improve the devastated US economy.
Therefore, the Arab Spring did not find strong backing in Washington, not because Mr. Obama was not interested in supporting freedom and democracy in the Middle East — he does — but because the Middle East is no longer a priority in Washington.
Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.