When Barack Obama first ran for the White House, a key argument he made was that he could “heal” America’s battered image in the eyes of the world, especially with Arabs, in the wake of the occupation of Iraq and other Bush administration policies. In June 2009, he gave a much ballyhooed speech in Cairo that the White House dubbed a “new beginning.”
Despite this new beginning, the administration has been largely on the sidelines during the tumult in Egypt, little able to affect or even stay ahead of the events. One reason may be that the U.S. is actually less popular in Egypt today than it was during the Bush years.
According to Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, the U.S. had a 30% favorability rating in Egypt in 2006. That is not much to be proud of, but by 2010 it had sunk to a mere 17%. (Pollster Nate Silver has argued that polls show a recent rise in pro-U.S. feelings in Egypt, but the methodology of that data has been questioned.)
One possible explanation for this decline has been the White House’s virtual abandonment of the previous administration’s policy of promoting democracy in the region. Obama touted the virtues of democracy a bit in his Cairo speech but generally pulled back:
I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.