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Don’t trust Obama’s poetry

July 04, 2012


While the Americans celebrate the Independence Day today, the global public opinion about the United States remains split. The high-income Europeans largely expressed a favourable opinion of the US and its leadership. On the other hand, low-income countries in Asia, Middle East, and Latin America remained wary of the unilateral American policies.

The US image, however, has taken the strongest hit in Pakistan where an overwhelming majority (74 per cent) considers America an enemy. The latest data from the Pew Global Attitudes Survey revealed that 80 per cent Pakistanis held an unfavourable view of the US.

Whereas the US continues to drop bombs on Pakistan from drones, which have reportedly killed several civilians and children along with others, and for months had refused to apologise for ‘accidentally’ killing 24 Pakistani soldiers at the Salala check-post, one could hardly blame Pakistanis for not cozying up to the Americans.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project, June 2012.

What a difference three years make. In 2009, President Barack Obama was applauded by the youth at Cairo University and was honoured by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. By 2012, thanks to the unilateral international policies pursued by the Obama administration, the admiration had turned into despair and, in some instances, contempt. Pew Data revealed that since 2009 the approval of President Obama’s international policies in Muslim-majority countries declined by 56 per cent.  Even in China, President Obama’s international policies saw a 53 per cent decline in approval from 57 per cent in 2009 to 27 per cent in 2012. At the same time, the US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere met a widespread global opposition.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project, June 2012.

President Obama himself failed to meet global expectations on several fronts. When he was first elected President, many (including the Nobel Committee) thought that he would usher in an era of multilateralism; seek international approval for any military action; and be an honest broker in the Middle East. Pew data however reveal that President Obama has failed to meet expectations on all these fronts.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project, June 2012.

The Obama administration’s ‘my way or the highway’ foreign policy has alienated peoples all across the globe. Pew data reveal that apart from Brazil, India, and China, Europeans and Muslim majority countries were of the view that the US acted unilaterally. In India 44 per cent of the respondents were of the view that the US was mindful of her interests. However, a year earlier in 2011, 57 per cent Indians held the same view. Similarly, in 2009, 41 per cent of the global respondents were of the view that the US would consider their country’s interests in making foreign policy decisions.  However, only 26 per cent believed the same in 2012.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project, June 2012.

Whereas, the US image continues to suffer because of Obama administration’s unilateralism, President Obama, however, boasted to supporters at a fundraiser of restoring America’s image globally. Earlier in February he told donors in Los Angeles that “[o]ne of the proudest things of my three years in office is helping to restore a sense of respect for America around the world, a belief that we are not just defined by the size of our military.”

The gullible supporters of the Democratic Party in Los Angeles might have bought President Obama’s claim of restoring America’s image abroad. The fact remains that drone attacks in Pakistan and the unilateral American foreign policy, which is driven by Pentagon rather than the State Department, has caused many to lose confidence in the US and President Obama.

The dissent is no longer confined to the people in foreign lands.  The ever expanding role of the CIA and other military institutions in civilian matters in the US has raised ire amongst American legislators and veteran diplomats. Twenty-six Congressmen, including two Republicans, have recently wrote to President Obama raising concerns about the process through which drone strikes are being authorised. The letter questions the “nature of the follow-up that is conducted when civilians are killed or injured ... and the mechanisms that ensure civilian casualty numbers are collected, tracked and analysed.” And whereas President Obama was advising supporters of restoring America’s image, the Congressmen were concerned that the civilian fatalities from drone strikes would further fuel anti-Americanism abroad. The drone strikes “could significantly increase risks of killing innocent civilians or those with no relationship to a potential attack on the US and further inflame anti-American sentiment abroad,” wrote American Congressmen.

The American unilateralism of the past decade or so is likely the result of the increasing control of the American defense establishment (Pentagon, CIA, and the like) on diplomatic corps. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2009 J. Anthony Holmes warned that if “the United States is to remain a superpower, it must rebuild the once-robust civilian diplomatic and development capacity that has since disappeared.” Ambassador Holmes is a past president of the American Foreign Service Association and a former US Ambassador to Burkina Faso. In his essay Ambassador Holmes urged the Obama administration not to rely exclusively on military but instead “invest in the government's traditional diplomatic capacity and build the bureaucratic infrastructure needed to deal with post conflict stabilisation,  reconstruction, and nation building.”

Despite cogent advice from seasoned diplomats of letting civilians manage the US foreign policy, the Obama administration continues to follow the plans devised by the American military establishment. How else would one explain continuing with the drone strikes that have met global condemnation?

One wonders how serious President Obama is about continuing in his role as the President of the United States for another four years. While talking to his supporters in Los Angeles he effectively declared that one should not read too much into his campaign promises. Borrowing an expression from the former New York Governor Mario Cuomo that “campaigning is poetry, governance is prose,” President Obama stated: “We’ve been slogging through prose for the last three years. And sometimes that gets people discouraged because people, they like the poetry.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2009 perhaps also bought into President Obama’s poetry of campaign promises. The committee praised him for bringing back multilateral diplomacy. Three years later, Obama administration’s unilateralism is at the centre of global discontent with the United States.

President Obama’s prose in governance is in stark contrast to the poetry of his campaign promises. This time around it would be prudent to judge the President for his prose and not his poetry.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.