Expectations are high for President Obama’s second trip across the Atlantic when he attempts this week to befriend the Muslim world and pushes for a renewed Middle East peace effort, with many demanding he offer specifics for the troubled region.
Analysts and scholars characterize the visit as a major opportunity and say Mr. Obama must do more than use lofty rhetoric if he wants to restore some of the international good will lost during the Bush administration.
The showcase event of Mr. Obama’s five-day, four-country trip abroad will be a speech in Cairo, and the new president said he will offer a broad message about how the U.S. can build mutual understanding and improve its relationship with the Muslim world.
As he underlines common ground in an attempt to reverse dramatic U.S. unpopularity in Arab countries, Mr. Obama also issue a reminder about the U.S. role in World War II that once endeared America abroad, with a series of ceremonial events in France and Germany.
“The president is eager to change the conversation with our Muslim and Arab friends,” said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “It’s an important opportunity to advance the national interest.”
Polls suggest that no matter how uplifting the words, Mr. Obama faces a steep climb to win over Arab countries.
“He will face a nation hardened in its negative view of the U.S. and its role in the region, and unconvinced that this or any American president can or will change policy,” said James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
He cited a poll by Zogby International, led by his brother John Zogby, showing that “deep skepticism” of Mr. Obama remains in Egypt and Jordan, with 75 percent of Egyptians giving the president a negative job approval rating.
“Egypt was the right choice. … Given Egypt’s sheer size and the importance of its role in the region, if President Obama can’t sell his message there, it may not have its desired impact anywhere,” Mr. Zogby said.
The speech is part of a layered approach Mr. Obama has employed since his Jan. 20 inauguration, when he offered the pursuit of “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
His first television interview as president was to Al Arabiya; he recorded a message for the Iranian new year, known as Nowruz; and during his last trip abroad in April he told the Turkish Grand National Assembly that the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam.
“Our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people,” he said in Turkey.
Stephen Flanagan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said U.S. popularity rose from 10 percent or less among Turksto a range of 45 percent to 50 percent after Mr. Obama spoke in their country.
A March Ipsos poll of 7,000 residents in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan found Mr. Obama’s popularity as an individual far outpaces the view of the U.S. on the whole.
Only 33 percent of poll respondents have a favorable view of the United States, while 43 percent have an unfavorable view and the others are neutral or didn’t have an opinion. In contrast, Mr. Obama’s popularity ranged from 35 percent in Egypt to 58 percent in Jordan.