Juan Cole: Obama, Muslim-world rock star

Roundup: Historians' Take

President Barack Obama is famously much better at playing basketball than at bowling. But to succeed in the Middle East, he needs to be good at a different game altogether: golf. There are no fast-paced victories to be had here, no dunks, no three-point shots. As in golf, the sand traps and roughs are treacherous and the course is slow, and there is time for players to quarrel and throw their irons about petulantly. Above all, as in golf, the secret of a good swing is a strong follow-through.

Obama, who begins a trip to the region Wednesday, starts his term much more popular in the Middle East than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Last year, in many Muslim-majority countries, including U.S. allies such as Turkey, Bush often had favorability ratings in the single digits, neck and neck with Osama bin Laden. In contrast, a new opinion poll released by the Brookings Institution shows that in six Middle Eastern states, Obama comes in at 45 percent favorable, and if Egypt is subtracted, the proportion soars to 60 percent. As Obama prepares to make a major address to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, can he capitalize on his rock-star status in Riyadh and Beirut to go beyond celebrity glitter to concrete achievements that would benefit both the United States and the Muslim world?

The Brookings poll shows that just three issues are cited by most Arab respondents as determinative of their view of the United States. In order, they are Iraq, the plight of the Palestinians, and attitudes toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. Interestingly, the war in Afghanistan, democracy promotion, and the issues around Iran have very little resonance among Arab publics. Iraq was cited as the key issue by 42 percent in six countries polled, so it is fair to conclude that Obama's stock in the Arab world, at least, is likely to rise or fall on how well he handles his planned military disengagement from that country.

The truth is that Obama's task in the Arab world is more difficult and more important than elsewhere. He is wildly popular in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, where he spent some of his childhood and from whence hailed his stepfather. Likewise, West African Muslims overwhelmingly supported his presidential bid last year. The U.S., however, does relatively little trade with either region, and they have not traditionally been central to its foreign policy. The 325 million Arabs are a minority of Muslims worldwide (and not all Arabs are Muslim), but Arab Muslims are disproportionately influential among their co-religionists and, because of their energy resources and strategic position between Europe and Afro-Asia, are especially important to the United States and its allies. They are the Muslims who are most skeptical about Obama....

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