Foreigners' opinions matter. For one, they predict - to some extent - the general level of success the U.S. can hope to achieve when engaging in this or that international issue (that is, when foreign public opinion is actually considered). Yet, more importantly, foreign public opinion can actually enhance American foreign policy toward that country/issue, if that public's attitudes are in line with American interests (which also implies that the public - or their representatives - will act accordingly). Voilà: public diplomacy.
Of course, here it is also important to mention that as America's charismatic leader, Obama is (was?!) also America'a greatest public diplomat. He did a good job (past tense).
Since Middle East (still) seems to be one of the most problematic regions for American foreign policy, and especially for its public diplomacy, engaging the local people is one of the core components of U.S. policy there. And there is no denying - the Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the root of the problem (in public diplomacy terms, at least). In his speeches in Istanbul and Cairo (both, just months after he took office in 2009), Obama raised high hopes and did actually help to improve the perception of the U.S. among the Arab people (as well as Muslims, in general).
Yet, two years on, there is obviously little progress - if any - on the issue, as the actors that matter don't even want to start talking to each other. So, given this context, what do the people in the region think about Obama and American foreign policy? Best place to find out: the market. That's what Al Jazeera did, in the divided city of Jerusalem:
Pretty telling, eh? I particularly like the quote from the West Jerusalem shop owner:
"[Obama] doesn't know anything about the Middle East. He thinks with his smiles and his charisma he can make anything, and it's not like that. Here it's the real world, it's not Hollywood."
Wow. Did the U.S. public diplomacy get so entangled in "entertainment/pop-culture promotion" and "talk-and- more-talk", that the policy itself has become just that? Most probably, not. But that's how people seem to be interpreting it.
Courtesy of Kremlin.ru
And who do they turn to, instead? Russia, of course. The Palestinians, at least. As the Israeli Foreign Ministry - under the pretext of a "strike" - refused to host the President, Medvedev paid a very symbolic visit to the West Bank and made reassuring statements, taking his turn to raise Palestinians' hopes. The chances of him being able to achieve any significant results are thin - at best - and yet, it seems like in January 2011 President Medvedev, and not Obama, was the one to score the public diplomacy points with Palestinians.
One thing both sides need to realize and recognize, however, is that empty promises - be it of engagement, support, or resolution - will not only not help in advancing their respective public diplomacy interests in the short run, but will also increase the chance of undermining those further in the medium/long run, as the mismatch between expectations and materialized promises grows larger.
In short, it's high time everyone involved starts thinking of public diplomacy of deed.