Just back from Tehran, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen related the sentiment of Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University and, according to a previous Times article, a "childhood friend" of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "What Obama has already done for the United States in the Muslim world is unbelievable."
Hadian is perhaps not the most reliable observer of popular opinion in Iran, having previously praised Ahmadinejad as a "self-confident, committed and absolutely incorruptible" leader. In 2004, New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof seemed genuinely surprised by his visit to Tehran, confidently declaring that "Finally, I've found a pro-American country." "Everywhere in Iran," wrote Kristof, "people have been exceptionally friendly and fulsome in their praise for the United States, and often for President George W. Bush as well." And the only hostility Kristof encountered was "from a table full of young Europeans."
Relying as they do on political considerations and selection bias, both observations are of little value to those attempting to gauge the actual mood in Iran. And while Hadian's effusive verdict strains credulity (and Kristof's seems to comport with a variety of independent sources), there is a good deal of evidence that the Obama presidency has indeed shifted attitudes towards the United States throughout the world. But not so much in the Muslim world.
According to a recent Pew poll, Obama has generally pushed America's favorability rating in a positive direction, with the resultant gains largest in Western Europe. In England, France, and Germany, for instance, positive perceptions of the United States have seen double digit jumps. But in Muslim countries, only Indonesia, where Obama spent four years as a child, registered a significant increase in favorability, while Pakistan saw a small drop in goodwill towards the U.S. (from 19 to 16 percent). Despite the administration's very public grappling with Israel, positive opinions of the United States in the Palestinian territories remained at a paltry 15 percent.
This much is true: It can't be a bad thing that the United States' "standing" in the world has increased, though one wonders if most respondents were aware of the Obama administration's flurry of Bush-like foreign policy decisions. But what now?
Obama's "rock star" popularity in Ghent and Schleswig-Holstein doesn't much impress America's antagonists. In a recent editorial, The Washington Post wrote excitedly that "The new administration has pushed a reset button with Russia and sent new ambassadors to Syria and Venezuela; it has offered olive branches to Cuba and Burma."
Add to that list Iran, whom the administration has offered a "new beginning" of direct engagement. In the meantime, an election was rigged, show trials of dissidents commenced, and three American tourists were arrested after "infiltrating" the country during a hike through the Kurdistan region of Iraq (American journalist Roxana Saberi was arrested in January on espionage charges). Last week, General Ray Odierno told journalists that Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs, including the arming and training of insurgents, "is more targeted now than it has ever been." The rock star has dazzled Copenhagen, but has thus far failed to dissuade Iran from continuing its pursuit of a nuclear program.
With Cuba, the administration has undertaken a handful of sensible measures, such as allowing unlimited remittances to flow into Cuba from America-based exiles, and eliminating limits on family travel to the island. But other "reset" policies are quixotic, like the administration's plan to allow "U.S. satellite radio and satellite television service providers to engage in transactions necessary to provide services to customers in Cuba." It is nice to know that the White House believes ordinary Cubans too desire to listen to Howard Stern or play along to Cash Cab at home, but it isn't a sentiment reciprocated by their oppressors.
If concessions, no matter how necessary, constitute a "thaw" in Cuban-American relations, it seems likely that Obama is content with a unidirectional policy of change. Indeed, Raul Castro, whom many hopeful experts predicted would take a softer line than his shriveled, half-dead brother, recently told a gathering of Communist Party apparatchiks that, despite the country's deepening economic crisis, there would be no China-like moves towards a freer market. "I wasn't elected (sic) president to return capitalism to Cuba or to surrender the revolution," he wheezed.
As the Post points out, there has been a "thaw" in
relations with Venezuela, too. In the spirit of these times of
"resetting," the two governments restored their respective
ambassadors, expelled last year during a diplomatic row. And it was
doubtless a strategic move for the Obama administration to denounce
the coup in Honduras, siding with the Chavez and Castro governments
in calling for President Manuel Zelaya to be speedily returned to
But if any of these entreaties were expected to change behavior in Caracas, to coax Chavez back into polite company, they have so far come to naught. Despite Obama's siding with Zelaya, Chavez, perhaps out of habit, blamed the Honduran coup on the CIA. In the past week, the Chavista government shut down 34 independent radio stations (with promises to close hundreds more), sent its thugs to attack the only remaining independent television channel, pushed a law aimed at censoring critics engaged in "media crimes," and was again caught arming the Colombian rebel group FARC.
In Afghanistan, even Obama boosters like Slate editor Jacob Weisberg warn that the administration risks "getting overcommitted" and is "putting too much faith in the United Nations, [and] accommodating dictators instead of standing up to them." While the previous administration discredited the idea of liberal internationalism, Weisberg says, "Obama has failed to stand up for the broader ideas of democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention.” Weisberg cautions that Obama cannot merely frame himself as the anti-Bush.
But for now, being the anti-Bush has kept his poll numbers high in this country, too.
During the 2008 election, when I spoke with voters in Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles, most expressed two desires: to "improve our image abroad" and see a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter wish, of course, hasn’t happened. While the streets of Washington, D.C., were crowded with "Funk the War" and "Bailout People Not Banks" demonstrations in 2008 (both documented by Reason.tv), the protesters have fallen silent since inauguration. We might still be tallying casualties in Herat and Baghdad, but the opposition has melted away, and reemerged on issues such as health care and the relative importance of mentally unbalanced "birthers."
But no matter. Those who loathed us, now loathe us a little bit less than before.
So rather than the scorn that so often greets Americans in Western Europe (and trust me, it is ubiquitous), our interlocutors will now praise our good sense in choosing Barack Obama, while paying less attention to our supposedly debased, ignorant culture. None of the standard talking points I encountered while living in Europe—e.g., Americans are fat, undereducated, and cultureless; or, to quote filmmaker Michael Moore, simply "the dumbest people on the planet"—are countervailed by a changing of the White House guard. And neither will be the hostility from Caracas and Tehran.
So by all means rejoice that this country is more likable to bien pensant Belgians, but remember that there is a profound difference between changing attitudes and changing policy.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.