By Fareed Zakaria
If President Obama is looking for high approval ratings, he should travel abroad. The numbers from a recent Pew Survey are astounding: 74 percent of Italians have a positive view of Obama, as do 69 percent of French, 60 percent of Britons and 58 percent of Spanish.
These numbers have actually dipped since 2009 – when they were truly stratospheric. But there are two trends that are particularly noticeable. One is the drop in confidence in Obama in Russia and China. Many Russians and Chinese are recognizing that they have issues with the American president because there are geopolitical differences between their country and the U.S., and that whoever is president, those differences are going to persist. Obama was never going to be able to wave a magic wand and make such divides disappear.
Then there’s the Arab world, where there has been much deeper disappointment (although it’s worth remembering that President Obama wasn’t all that popular there in the first place, contrary to conventional wisdom). In this case, the disappointment stems from hopes in the region that Obama would push harder with Israel over the creation of a Palestinian state. In addition, almost everyone is unhappy with the use of drone attacks.
I think the central disappointment for the much of the world, and not just in the Arab world, has been the Arab-Israeli issue, and I think Obama has mishandled that. He appointed a high level negotiator in George Mitchell, which was fine, as was the shuttling back and forth of U.S. officials to build confidence. But then Obama decided that he was going to get personally involved, and he put a lot of his personal prestige on the line.
Whatever you think of what should and should not be done in the Middle East, I think it’s clear that the Obama approach didn’t work. He tried to get the Israelis to freeze settlement activity, and they didn’t. And his efforts didn’t result in any kind of resumption of serious negotiations – so his strategy went nowhere. A better approach, in my view, would have been to spend more time trying to figure out what the likely path to success was – and if there wasn’t one, to avoid any great exertion of presidential prestige.
Obama’s approach ended up with no results, a public spat with the Israeli prime minister (which hasn’t helped him politically at home) and disappointment elsewhere. People believe in winners, and to see a president not be successful on this big issue is bound to affect views of him.
The other major thorn in the side of U.S. ties with other countries has been the use of drones, and here there is simply a fundamental difference of opinion with the rest of the world. If you look at the Pew survey, almost every country surveyed other than the United States shows more people unhappy with the use of drones than approving (India is the only other country where more people approved of their use than disapproved).
This may be one of those times where we just have to live with that. We are the global superpower, we have this technology that we can use to take on these terrorist groups and it’s one that has been a very effective (nobody would dispute that.)
For much of the world, Obama is seen as symbolic in terms of his background and race – the fact that he has come so far and is the first African-American president. I think the opinion among many in the Arab world when Obama took office is that he would be a transformative figure. But as a leader, Obama has been more of a traditional president, especially in foreign policy. That would also explain why on the issue of foreign policy, Obama leads Romney by 15 points.
Tell us what people in your country think of Barack Obama.
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