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Obama’s First Year Disappoints Many Abroad

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  • Judith Latham's Report on International Reaction to Obama's First Year

U.S. President Barack Obama’s sagging approval ratings aren’t only a domestic phenomenon.  The international community is expressing similar emotions about a president who initially offered high hopes, but failed to meet their expectations.

While one year does not make a presidency, some who observe reaction from abroad say there is widespread disappointment that Mr. Obama hasn’t produced more of the results he had led them to expect.

Like many around the world, the international media greeted the Obama presidency with high hopes for a new era of improved relations with Washington.  They were largely enthusiastic about Mr. Obama’s pledges to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, to forge a new relationship with the Muslim world, to end an unpopular war in Iraq, to re-direct U.S. military resources to Afghanistan, to seek diplomatic solution to nuclear issues, and to tackle climate change.  But despite some progress, these goals remain to be met.

Middle East Peace Remains Elusive

Perhaps nowhere is the gap between the administration’s goals and its accomplishments more apparent than in the Middle East.  Despite naming a special envoy in an attempt to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, the prospects of that happening any time soon remain slim.  “People in the Arab world are deeply disappointed in Mr. Obama,” says Nadia Bilbassy, senior news correspondent with the Middle East Broadcasting Center. 

“People think of President Obama as a good guy with good intentions, but so far – if you look at the issues in the Middle East – he has not succeeded in any of them,” Bilbassy observes.  She says appointing Senator George Mitchell as his envoy to the Middle East may have been a good idea, but she notes the move has yet to bear fruit. 

While Bilbassy notices “some people doubt President Obama’s has the guts to challenge things,” she acknowledges the issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians have stymied other presidents, and that the obstacles to overcome are enormous. 

“When you have an Israeli government that is not willing to make peace, and you have Palestinian factions that are divided and unable to get their act together, it’s very tough to move forward,” Bilbassy says.

Iran and Iraq

U.S. efforts to deal with the Iranian leadership – whether on its nuclear ambitions or the crackdown on its political opposition – have also come up short, according to Bilbassy.   But again, she admits Iran’s leadership presents problems to most of the international community.

“Obviously, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tactic for staying in power is being anti-American and standing up to the superpower.  But regardless of who’s in power, I think the Iranian government will pursue a nuclear Iran because they see it as in their strategic interest in a volatile region,” Bilbassy says.

Just as President Obama once again promised in his State of the Union address this week to have all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August, Bilbassy says she believes Washington seems to be losing some of its “former clout” there.  She says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has basically ignored U.S. pressure to open up the March elections to a wide range of Sunni candidates. 

South Asia

President Obama’s failure to mention Pakistan and its role in the war on terror has caused some resentment there.  His stature in much of South Asia is declining, according to former Pakistani diplomat and journalist Akbar Ahmed.  “People had immense hopes and expectations of him, almost too much for an ordinary mortal,” Ahmed says. 

Part of the reason for that disappointment may be that the United States and Pakistan have different priorities. “In South Asia, the big issue between India and Pakistan is the resolution of the state of Kashmir,” according to Ahmed.  And although Mr. Obama seemed to recognize that point before he became president, Ahmed says he has not mentioned it publically since that time.

“The two countries have to be encouraged to sit down and resolve these issues because both are nuclear and their combined population is one-fourth to one-fifth of the entire planet,” Ahmed notes.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama appointed Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The move signaled the region had become a new diplomatic priority for the United States.  “I was really excited,” says Ahmed. “I said, my God, finally an American president not only understands but feels for the region and will deliver.”

“But, despite the enormous aid package President Obama promised,” Ahmed continues, “the ordinary people of Afghanistan and Pakistan feel their lives have not been changed one iota as a result of his very generous aid.”

Like the roadblocks that hinder peace talks in the Middle East, Ahmed notes that President Obama inherited a set of what he calls “cumulative problems” in the Muslim world.  “We need to remember that Muslim leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan have to begin to think of their own societies and not rely entirely on America,” Ahmed says.

Europe’s Different View of Obama 

Western Europe seems to project President Obama in a better light, where he has better polling numbers than he does in the United States.  “Europeans are particularly disappointed that the American people seem unwilling to follow their President on issues such as climate change,” says German journalist Christian Wernicke of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

The Next Three Years

Barack Obama’s job approval ratings fell by near record numbers during his first year in office .  History shows such a downward trend is not uncommon for newly-elected presidents.  While he remains personally popular – both at home and abroad – many people are disappointed Mr. Obama has been unable to bring about the changes that were expected of him in his first year.
We are reminded that a U.S. president’s time in office lasts at least four years.  With three years before he must face re-election, President Obama still has time to show what he can do.

Listen to VOA Radio for Judith Latham's INTERNATIONAL PRESS CLUB, heard throughout the day every Thursday on  VOA's "World News Now."

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