Pew phew. The results of the Pew Foundation’s Global Attitudes Project stunned the Bush Administration’s public diplomacy bureaucrats. They have spent big bucks to spruce up the U.S. image in the Arab and Muslim worlds, apparently to no avail. Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, now inspires more confidence than President Bush in Indonesia, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and among Palestinians. The war on Iraq seems to be the principal culprit.
The al Qaeda leader, who is responsible for the death of some 3,000 Americans on September 11, received a strong vote of confidence — as the man most trusted to do the right thing in world affairs — in these four countries and in the occupied Palestinian territories with a combined population of 430 million.
Mr. Bush’s nemesis, French President Jacques Chirac, tied the U.N.’s Kofi Annan as the leader most trusted to do the right thing. Mr. Chirac’s confrontation with President Bush won him plaudits in many places. British Prime Minister Tony Blair outpolled the U.S. president in the United States.
In Jordan, a friendly pro-Western country, 99 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the United States, up from 75 percent a year ago. Pro-Western Morocco said overwhelmingly (92 percent) that Israelis and Palestinians could not coexist as opposed to 67 percent of Americans who say they can.
The distrust of the United States was so high that majorities in seven of eight Muslim populations surveyed — Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait — said they thought the United States could become a military threat to their countries. In Pakistan, 64 percent felt Islam was seriously threatened by the United States. In Jordan, it was 97 percent, up from 80 percent a year ago.
The Pew Project surveyed 38,000 people in 44 nations last year and followed up after the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom with 16,000 people in 20 nations and in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. The war clearly produced larger percentages of anti-American answers.
One of the most disturbing shifts in public opinion was apparent in Turkey, a long-time pro-U.S. ally. Responding to anti-American sentiment generated by U.S. war preparations against Iraq, the Turkish parliament voted against letting U.S. troops traverse its soil to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein. Now 83 percent of Turks have a negative opinion of the United States (vs. 55 percent a year ago).
Spain, one of the few countries to join Mr. Bush’s coalition of the willing against Iraq, produced only 38 percent with positive feelings about the United States. But two other members of the coalition — Italy (77 percent) and Britain (80 percent) — gave Mr. Bush a ringing endorsement.
The silver lining came in answers to questions about democratic pluralism, which a slim majority of Muslims seem to favor — except Indonesia. The lightning rod was more frequently Mr. Bush the man than the United States or Americans.
The United Nations also took its lumps. Not a single country surveyed believes the United Nations still plays an important role in dealing with international conflicts.
Support for America’s war on terrorism dropped in France and Germany by identical margins (from 75 percent to 60 percent). Both sides of the Atlantic seemed to favor an easing of the security bonds that have linked them within NATO. Madeleine K. Albright, the former secretary of state who chaired the Pew Project, said, “For those of us who care about NATO, this is a red flag. The only way to get beyond this is to find more ways we can work together in NATO. … It can’t be relevant if you don’t work at it.”
Mr. Bush’s Mideast peace initiative hopefully will alter negative perceptions for the better. But there is much ground to make up. No one believes the United States can be even-handed between Israel and the Palestinians. Muslim populations surveyed see U.S. policies as destabilizing the Middle East, as do majorities in most other countries polled.
Public diplomacy became a top priority after September 11. The Bush administration pledged to dispel the grotesque distorting mirror image Muslims have of America and Americans. Countless millions of Muslims believed the canard that September 11 was a plot engineered by the CIA and Mossad. They still do. The war on Iraq — following the war on Afghanistan — was further evidence to Muslim militants that the United States is determined to eradicate Islam. The fact that Pew has elicited more anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim worlds today than before September 11 would seem to indicate that the administration’s much vaunted “innovative ideas” about public diplomacy have been a dismal and costly failure.
The State Department is spending more than $1 billion a year on challenging anti-American views, particularly in the Muslim world. Radio Sawa that reaches across the Middle East is aimed at Arab listeners under 30. They like the music but evidently ignore the administration’s commercials.
It’s back to the drawing board for the spin doctors.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.