What We Can Learn from the Attacks on U.S. Embassies

This week's U.S. embassy attacks are the product of intense jockeying for power in an Arab political landscape riven with both new and familiar challenges. Here are five key lessons to take away from an ugly week

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Yemeni protesters storm the U.S. embassy in the capital, Sana‘a, on Sept. 13 2012

4. Despite Obama’s Outreach, the Arab World Dislikes the U.S. More than Ever

Many eyebrows were raised in the Middle East policy community on Thursday when President Obama told Telemundo, referring to Egypt, that “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” While both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood government need U.S. support and assistance in order to help stabilize Egypt on a path of economic growth and development, from a domestic political point of view, Morsy may be comfortable with Obama’s characterization of the relationship. For one thing, it’s a mirror image of his own reassertion of nonalignment and strategic independence, breaking with the Mubarak-era habit of playing loyal servant to U.S. regional policies. But it’s also possible that — particularly for a party whose main electoral challenge comes not from liberal democrats but from Salafists — it’s not necessarily helpful to be perceived as an ally of the U.S.

(MORE: Death and the American Ambassador: What Happened in Benghazi?)

Released in June, the annual Pew survey on global attitudes toward the U.S. found, in fact, that 79% of Egyptians hold an unfavorable view of the U.S., while only 19% holding a positive view. And what’s particularly striking is that despite Obama’s promises to revive U.S. standing in the Muslim world from the lows to which it sank under the Bush Administration, Washington’s approval rating in a number of key Muslim countries is slightly lower now than it was in 2008.

Obama, in his speech at Cairo University in June 2009, called for “a new beginning” in the Muslim world’s fraught relationship with the U.S. based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” He called for changes in the Arab world but also seemed to promise changes in the U.S.’s approach, speaking of promoting democracy and Palestinian freedom, of negotiating progress with Iran and of ending the war in Afghanistan. But on all of those issues, it appears his audience that day has been unimpressed with what he has delivered. The war in Afghanistan drags on; the Administration’s efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and restrain Israel’s settlement activity were stillborn; tensions with Iran are mounting; and the U.S. demonstrated a telling ambivalence at the start of the Arab uprisings when it became clear that it could not support democracy and prop up stalwart allies like Mubarak. The prison at Guantánamo Bay, which Obama promised to shut down, remains open.

Embracing the U.S. as an ally, then, remains a politically risky bet for emerging Arab leaders, while theatrically denouncing it over sleights real and perceived remains a fail-safe option for populist demagogues.

MORE: Never Mind the Democrats’ Jerusalem Kerfuffle, Where’s the Peace Process?

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