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Poll Reveals Growing Muslim Antipathy to Obama Foreign Policy


President Barack Obama on Wednesday (epa/ZUMApress.com)

A year after President Obama’s speech in Cairo vowing to reset relations with the Muslim world, Muslims worldwide are telling pollsters about their disillusionment with what they consider unfulfilled expectations.

According to the Pew Center’s new survey of global attitudes (PDF), released Thursday morning, citizens of Muslim nations report disproportionate antipathy to Obama’s foreign policy. With the exception of Indonesia, where Obama spent a portion of his childhood, Muslims are the exceptions to the Pew poll’s findings that eighteen months of the Obama administration have seen a surge of international support for the United States after the public-opinion troughs of the Bush administration.

[Security1] “The Pew results reflect growing dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies, as many Arabs and Muslims are disappointed that Obama has not lived up to his promises, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor and the co-author of a recent Center for a New American Security report measuring Obama’s global engagement efforts. “They don’t see his actions matching his words, and until they do then it isn’t likely that there will be a sustained recovery in America’s image.”

In Jordan, the U.S. approval rating has fallen to 21 percent. It’s at 17 percent, the lowest of any countries Pew surveyed, in Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan. And this comes after the Obama administration has presided over the largest non-military aid package to Pakistan — the $7.5 billion, five-year Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill — in history.

“Opposition to key elements of U.S. foreign policy remains pervasive,” Pew analyzes, “and many continue to perceive the U.S. as a potential military threat to their countries.”

The news is not universally negative. Nigerian Muslims give Obama a 70 percent approval rating, up from 61 percent in 2009. But they’re the outliers. In Egypt and Lebanon, Obama’s ascendance — and the departure of George W. Bush — elevated Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. somewhat: 25 percent of Egyptians reported favorable opinions of the U.S. in 2009, up from 20 percent a year earlier; Lebanese Muslims in 2008 had given the U.S. a 34 percent favorability rating, which rose to 47 percent in 2008. Now Egyptian Muslims have reverted to their pre-Obama 20 percent favorability rating. Lebanese Muslims have settled into a 39 percent favorability rating.

More ominous from the perspective of Obama’s Cairo speech, Muslims express a sentiment directly opposite the speech’s offer of partnership: They fear that the U.S. will attack them. Majorities, and sometimes large ones, of respondents in Egypt (56 percent), Lebanon (56 percent), Indonesia (76 percent), Pakistan (65 percent), Jordan (52 percent) and Turkey (56 percent) believe the U.S. is a potential military threat. That shouldn’t be surprising: Pakistan, despite being a Major Non-NATO Ally of the U.S., is currently battered in its tribal areas by CIA drone strikes, a step the U.S. has taken in response to what it considers insufficient Pakistani military action against al-Qaeda-aligned extremist groups. In Cairo, Obama pledged that the U.S. “is not, and never will be, at war with Islam,” but many Muslims worldwide believe that the U.S. still has them in its crosshairs.

Support for the Afghanistan war and U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Muslim countries is also anemic. Lebanon is the only Muslim country surveyed by Pew where even 20 percent believe that the U.S. should keep fighting in Afghanistan. (Neighboring Pakistan? Seven percent.) While support for U.S. counterterrorism efforts have grown in non-Muslim countries since Obama took office, it’s at 18 percent in Egypt, 12 percent in Jordan, and 47 percent among Nigerian Muslims.

Several counterterrorism experts believe the U.S.’s counterterrorism efforts will ultimately be hobbled if they run into a headwind of Muslim antipathy. Malcolm Nance, a retired veteran military intelligence officer who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, argues in a new book that rather than attempt to change Muslim attitudes, a more productive strategy would involve moving the conversation to al-Qaeda’s apostasy. Nance code-names this approach CIRCUIT BREAKER, and writes in “An End to Al-Qaeda” that subjecting al-Qaeda to a “deep analytical dissection of their religious motives” can provide a path to “a new era for reconciliation and cooperation with the Muslim street.” It would also provide a platform for popular acquiescence to military or intelligence action against al-Qaeda — or at least limit blowback from it.

The administration appears to be attentive to the challenges, even if it hasn’t figured out a programmatic way to overcome them. Last month, the Pentagon quietly established a new office to ensure that military efforts don’t inadvertently undermine the administration’s broader promotion of the rule of law around the world.

Lynch, who also recently evaluated Obama’s counterterrorism efforts for CNAS partially through the prism of Muslim acquiescence, disputed that the Pew numbers demonstrate that Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world was in vain. “It’s more that he said he would do things, but thus far hasn’t delivered,” Lynch said, “so the words lose their meaning. It’s a real problem for the broader counterterrorism strategy, since winning over mainstream support is absolutely key to the strategy.”

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