Muslim Protests: Has Obama Helped Bring On an Anti-U.S. 'Islamist Spring'?

As the demonstrations over a American-made anti-Islam film continue, Michael Rubin and Aaron David Miller review the president's record in the Arab world.

Obama-Shoe.jpgA protester hits a portrait of Barack Obama with a shoe--a gesture of insult among Arabs--in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in March. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

In 2009, just five months into his presidency, Barack Obama gave a speech in Cairo to signal what he hoped would be a fresh start with the Muslim world.  "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world -- one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition," Obama said. "Instead, they overlap and share common principles -- principles of justice, and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings."

After almost a decade of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Obama was seeking to turn the page on years of mutual distrust and suspicion.

That attempt largely failed, says Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But Rubin also says that's not because of anything Obama did or didn't do after he gave that speech. "I'm not sure we can really say that the Middle East revolves around the White House or [whoever] the occupant of the White House happens to be," Rubin says. "Oftentimes, whether it's under President Obama, or before him, under President Bush, or President Clinton, the U.S. tends to be in reactive mode towards the Middle  East, rather than in proactive mode."

Protests sparked by an obscure U.S.-made video mocking Islam kicked off in Arab countries this month before sweeping across other parts of the Muslim world. And as the often violent protests continue, Obama's post-Arab spring policies are coming up for review in Washington in the midst of a heated election season.

Decades of Political Autocracy and Economic Failure

Republicans have seized on the violent deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, as well as images of U.S. embassies being overrun and the American flag being torn down, to criticize Obama for weak leadership. But Rubin, like many foreign policy analysts, sees the current wave of anti-American anger as rooted in Arab Muslims' deep frustration over decades of oppression and lack of economic opportunities.

"I think that 80 percent of what we're seeing in the Middle East right now has to do with domestic politics in the Arab world, for which the United States is a convenient foil," Rubin says. "The fault upon President Obama may have been expecting that a change of tone could fundamentally alter the perceptions in the Middle East of the United States, but in reality, the Arab Spring caught everyone by surprise."

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says blaming Obama's policies for the anti-American protests is "misplaced and inappropriate." Like Rubin, Miller says U.S. influence during the Arab Spring has been diminished because events are being driven by forces beyond Washington's control.

"They're being driven by a profound anger toward the United States, which has been loosed by the Arab Spring. And that anger has been building up over the course of 40 years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations," Miller says. "Profound anger rooted in what is perceived to be our blind support for Israel, profound anger as a consequence of our military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, profound anger against our counterterrorism policy and use of predator drones.

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