The 'house Bush built' drags on America's reputation

Both in the US and abroad, the impact of the sometimes neglectful and other times reckless policies of the last administration are everywhere in evidence.

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One year ago, on the second anniversary of US President Barack Obama's historic Cairo University address, the Arab American Institute released the results of our 2011 Arab world polling. The findings were devastating, though not wholly unexpected. What we found was that America's overall favourable ratings across the Arab world were lower in 2011 than they had been in the last year of the Bush Administration.

Domestic opponents of President Obama rather shamefully leapt for joy, refusing to acknowledge that this collapse of hope for change was in no small measure due to their obstructionism. And they appeared unconcerned with the consequences this loss of trust was having on America's ability to function across the region. More troubling than the precipitous decline in America's standing in the Arab world are the constraints this situation has imposed on the ability of the United States to play a constructive role in regional affairs.

We live in what I call the house that Bush built. Both in the US and abroad, the impact of the sometimes neglectful and other times reckless policies of the last administration are everywhere in evidence. In the Middle East alone, Americans witnessed two failed wars that have been costly beyond measure in lives and treasure; abominable behaviours that sullied the United States' honour (torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, "black sites", rendition and more); an emboldened hard-line government in Israel, coupled with the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a failed peace process; an unleashed and aggressive Iran, flexing its muscles throughout the region; and the spread of destabilising extremist currents.

This was the mess that greeted President Obama when he entered the White House. What is most galling is that his opponents had supported the policies that landed us in this mess in the first place, and now they continue to oppose every effort to change direction.

They denounced the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq and now advocate an indeterminate involvement in Afghanistan. They have criticised Mr Obama's condemnation of torture, rebuking him for "apologising for America". They blocked all efforts to close Guantanamo. They have publicly embraced Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, siding with the intransigent Israeli leader against Mr Obama while, at the same time, attempting to cut off aid to the Palestinians. They have denounced efforts to negotiate with Iran to rein in its nuclear programme, advocating a more muscular approach while publicly supporting Israel's "right" to bomb that country. And they have refused support for programmes the president has proposed that would provide needed capacity-building in Arab countries currently undergoing democratic transformations.

It is possible to see this destructive dynamic at work in the partisan debate that has developed in face of the sustained and horrific violence that is now rocking Syria.

Responding quite soberly to the tragic Syrian situation last week, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, made clear that as horrific as the violence has been, it could get worse. She correctly cautioned against a military approach, laying out in detail her concerns, noting for example that "funnelling more weapons" into Syria risks creating "an all-out civil war and regional war". Speaking for the administration, Ms Rice said a diplomatic and negotiated end to the fighting and to the regime was preferable.

What the administration also knows is that given the strategic position of Syria, the fragility of the country and its neighbours and America's low political standing in the region, US involvement in another ground war in the heart of the Middle East is the last thing the region needs at this time.

Mr Obama's opponents, on the other hand, have sought to take advantage of the public's outrage over the atrocities they see occurring in Syria and to irresponsibly use it for political advantage. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, for example, criticised the White House last week, terming Mr Obama weak and indecisive. Mr Romney's supporters went further, with Senator Lindsey Graham advocating US-led aggressive military action, and Senator John McCain calling on the administration to arm the Syrian opposition and set up a "safe haven" within Syria in which the rebels can operate against the regime.

But how could this be done without international legitimacy? How would a US-led assault be received in the region, where despite distaste for the Syrian regime people are less trusting of America? And what would be the effect of all this on vulnerable populations in Syria, or on Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan or Turkey?

This push for forceful action by the US may resonate with some, but in the world in which we live these calls for military blows represent nothing more than the same dangerous reckless adventurism that landed the US in the mess it's in.

To be fair, the loss of American standing across the region is not just the fault of domestic opponents. In several instances, the administration hasn't helped itself. Over reliance on drone strikes to assassinate suspected terror targets, for instance, has delivered a blow to America's claim to uphold international law.

So here we are, three years after the remarkable speech in Cairo. The Arab world is undergoing significant and sometimes destabilising change, and the promised change in US policy is not yet on the horizon.

We are now in the midst of an election year; if change is to come at all, it will most likely have to wait until after November.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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