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Longing for an old, trusted enemy

For years I listened to Arabs from across the Middle East complain about how much they hated President George W. Bush. So after the election of President Barack Obama, I expected something of a sigh of relief from the region. But days after he took office I began encountering the occasional Arab who admitted that he missed Bush.

“?!?!” I initially thought. It flew in the face of almost every casual conversation about politics I’d ever had in the Middle East.

It’s not that these guys were closet Bush fans or even had some vague empathy for him or his policies — I think it’s safe to say he remains the most loathed U.S. president in the mind of Arabs — but after eight years of Bush at the helm, they knew what to expect.

Shortly after the inauguration, one Iraqi grocer in Baghdad explained it to me like this, “It’s like Saddam. I hated Saddam, but I knew Saddam. I don’t know anything about Obama. Maybe he’ll make things better or maybe he’ll make them worse. I don’t know.”

(Here’s a link to a video I made for The Christian Science Monitor last summer when Obama visited Iraq during the elections. It shows what an unknown Obama was in the Middle East when he first broke onto the world stage.)

For the first couple months, Obama’s focus on domestic issues and the economy did little to put these concerns to rest. Sure he reached out with an open hand toward Iran and Syria, but what about the Palestine-Israel issue? Would he keep the same allies as Bush? Would the war on terror change course? For most Arabs, the Obama administration remained shrouded in questions.

However, with only a few days to spare before hitting the 100-day marker, Obama broke through to many Arabs longing to see how he would play America’s cards. Last week, he hosted the first Arab leader at the White House, Jordan’s King Abdullah II. The two are said to have focused the meeting largely on the Arab-Israeli peace process. After the meeting Obama came out as a “strong proponent of a two-state solution,” which many Arab leaders, including Abdullah, advocate as part of the Arab Peace Initiative.

In many ways, the meeting helped coax out that sigh of relief I’d long expected to hear. “Obama, he’s much better than Bush, God willing,” my Palestinian cab driver told me yesterday in Amman. “I think he might help to finally make peace here, not like Bush. Bush loved war.” With that familiar anti-Bush refrain, public opinion in the Middle East seemed right once more.