- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has failed to reap the benefits once expected. The latest report from the Pew Global Attitudes Project indicated that Muslims in the Middle East are less impressed with Mr. Obama now than they were when he first delivered his message of hope and change to Cairo last year.

The unprecedented, occasionally fawning effort to court the Islamic world apparently was based on the belief that dislike of the United States was rooted in the George W. Bush administration’s failure to show proper respect to the people of the region. The new administration’s plan to remedy this state of affairs included banishment of the phrase “Islamic radicalism” from the lexicon. It’s no longer a “war on terrorism,” it is an “overseas contingency operation.”

This approach has not paid off. While many countries, particularly in Europe and Africa, express high confidence in Mr. Obama (he enjoys 95 percent approval in Kenya, for example), he gets a vote of no confidence in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and South Asia, with disapproval ranging from 56 percent to 65 percent.

It is true that more in the region believe that Mr. Obama will “do the right thing in foreign affairs” than supported the policies of Mr. Bush. The administration may claim this as evidence that obsequiousness has had an impact. Nonetheless, the numbers are far from stellar, and they continue to plummet. After a year in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama has just 33 percent of Egyptians confident that he will do the right thing in foreign affairs, and just 17 percent approve of his actual policies - a drop of 21 points from 2009. In Jordan, 26 percent think Mr. Obama will do the right thing, but just 15 percent approve - down 12 points over the past year. In Pakistan, both numbers track but are in the single digits.

Presumably, the goal of the Muslim outreach effort has been to soften opposition to our wars in the Middle East, but this too has failed miserably. The Pew report notes that Mr. Obama “receives overwhelmingly low ratings from publics in predominantly Muslim countries for his job performance on Iraq and Afghanistan.” Approval ratings ranged from 4 percent to 22 percent, with disapproval ranging 53 percent to 84 percent.

When Mr. Obama took office, he promised a regional framework strategy, “AfPak,” for resolving the war in Afghanistan that supposedly was more sophisticated than that of his predecessor. With just 6 percent approval, Mr. Obama’s policies are disliked more in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country with nuclear weapons, than probably anywhere else in the world.

The scores were little higher for his performance regarding Iran and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Lebanese Christians and Sunni Muslims did offer some support to Mr. Obama on the Iran issue because they are the domestic groups most threatened by Tehran-funded Hezbollah, but the pro-Iran Shia population in Lebanon rejects Mr. Obama’s policies 100 percent. The president’s average approval rating among Muslims on the Israeli/Palestinian issue was in single digits, which mirrored similarly low approval ratings among Jewish Israelis for his policies. At least he brought the two sides together on something.

Differences between the U.S. and Muslim-majority countries will not be solved through symbolism and feel-good rhetoric, and Mr. Obama will not overcome the difficult problems the U.S. faces in that region by pretending their fundamental causes do not exist.

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