- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

President Obama is attempting to salvage his flagging Middle East strategy. In his scheduled speech today on the events in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Obama may also try to claim a measure of credit for the changes sweeping the region. This will be a tough sell, especially to the supermajorities of people in that part of the world who simply don’t like America.

The latest polling from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Project shows that Mr. Obama’s much-heralded outreach to the Muslim world has failed. In Egypt, site of the June 2009 Cairo speech that kicked off the effort, the United States has a 20 percent favorability rating, seven points below where it was in 2009. In Pakistan, U.S. approval is 11 percent, a five-point drop since the Cairo speech. These surveys were conducted before the flap over charges of violating Pakistan’s sovereignty in taking down Osama bin Laden. In Jordan and Turkey, two important regional allies, American approval is 13 percent (down 12 points) and 11 percent (down four points) respectively. For Obama defenders who argue he inherited this problem from the George W. Bush administration, note that in 2006, U.S. favorability in Egypt stood at 30 percent and in Pakistan at 27 percent - still not good numbers, but higher than any Mr. Obama has generated.

In no country surveyed did a majority approve of Mr. Obama’s calls for political change, yet support for democracy is high in the region. In Egypt, 71 percent think it’s the preferable form of government. What democracy means to people is another matter, however. To some, it primarily means an end to corrupt authoritarian rule. To others, it may mean a chance to enshrine the rule of law and develop a civil society that honors individual rights. To groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, democracy simply supplies a means to the end of establishing hard-line Shariah law. They may take heart in the poll result showing 62 percent of Egyptians saying “laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Koran.” Al Qaeda is 1 percent more popular in Egypt than the United States.

The Pew survey demonstrates that this is a pivotal time for opponents of Islamic fundamentalism in the region. Thirty-one percent of Egyptian Muslims sympathize more with the fundamentalist position while 30 percent support those who disagree with fundamentalism. This equal division presents the White House with a leadership opportunity to reach out to those nascent, struggling political factions whose political agenda more reflects American values. Despite the “we are not at war with Islam” mantra, the case cannot be made that promoting Islamist political movements in any way conforms to American notions of good governance.

Instead of pandering, Mr. Obama ought to actively champion American notions of freedom.