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Anti-Americanism: Alive and Well in the Age of Obama

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Islamic countries distrust the United States under the leadership of President Obama about as much as they did under President George W. Bush. What's going on?

Throughout the Bush presidency, opinion polling from the Pew Research Center trumpeted America’s “abysmal” approval ratings across the globe. The problem, pollsters suggested with numbing regularity, was that a “cowboy president” had inflamed the Muslim world—and America’s European allies—with his “unilateral” war on terrorism. The remedy, of course, was a new administration with a fresh approach: a president committed to multilateralism, smart diplomacy, and American soft power. Right on cue, a Pew report hailed Barack Obama’s election for inspiring “global confidence” in U.S. leadership and rescuing America’s reputation from eternal perdition.

This hagiographic storyline, however, is evaporating like a morning mist. A newer Pew survey suggests that most Islamic countries distrust the United States under the leadership of President Obama about as much as they did under President George W. Bush. Yes, majorities of the Muslim populations interviewed still believe that America plays a mostly destructive role in the world. Most view the United States as “an enemy” and “a military threat” to their own country. Most disapprove of the American-led effort to combat terrorism. Large numbers, in fact, voice strong support for terrorism and Osama bin Laden. Western Europeans, though expressing positive personal views of Obama, show little enthusiasm for key U.S. foreign policy objectives. In other words, anti-Americanism is alive and well in the age of Obama.

The most alarming poll finding, in view of Pakistan’s nuclear capability, is that more Pakistanis express positive views of Osama bin Laden than they do of President Obama.

The Pew poll, completed just after Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world, drew on 27,000 interviews in 25 countries, including five Muslim-majority states. The desultory findings from Muslim respondents—reported by Pew researchers with a mix of confusion and rationalization—received scant attention from the mainstream media. No wonder: If the survey results represent attitudes in the Middle East and beyond, then the most cherished liberal assumptions about radical Islam and U.S. foreign policy are exposed as desperate falsehoods.

Perhaps the most fearsome example is Pakistan, where only about 16 percent of respondents express a positive view of the United States—a drop of three percentage points from when Bush was president. Thanks in part to terrorist attacks that have killed scores of ordinary Pakistanis, disapproval of terrorism and the Taliban has risen sharply in recent months. Nevertheless, most Pakistanis (64 percent) view the United States as an enemy. The most alarming finding, in view of Pakistan’s nuclear capability, is that more people express positive views of Osama bin Laden than they do of Obama. Let that soak in. Nearly one in five respondents (18 percent) trust bin Laden to “do the right thing” in world affairs, compared to 13 percent for Obama. Given Al Qaeda’s record of slaughtering Muslims as effortlessly as they do Western infidels, the Pakistani psyche seems headed for moral collapse.

Many people in Muslim-majority states believe the United States is playing a largely negative role in the world, according to a survey.

The situation in other Muslim lands looks nearly as grim. Echoing the Pew findings, a recent World Public Opinion survey suggests that many people in Muslim-majority states believe the United States is playing a largely negative role in the world (72 percent in Turkey say the United States is playing a mainly negative role, 69 percent in Pakistan, 67 percent in Egypt, 53 percent in Iraq, and 39 percent in Indonesia.) In Egypt, where America-bashing is virtually the only permissible form of public protest, high levels of anti-Americanism persist. Palestinians, by a more than two-to-one margin (51 percent to 23 percent), have more confidence in the leader of Al Qaeda than in President Obama. Obama gets higher approval ratings in Turkey—about 33 percent—but most respondents oppose his Afghanistan policy and express highly unfavorable attitudes toward the United States. Indeed, at least 86 percent of Turks say America abuses its power to get Turkey to do what it wants, and 76 percent see the United States as having a “hypocritical” agenda. This comes despite continuing U.S. support for Turkey’s admission to the European Union, assistance against terror attacks of the Kurdistan Workers Party, and an Obama trip in which he reassured Turks that America “is not, and never will be, at war with Islam.” A recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has begun to grasp the essential reality: “Combined with historical data, these new polls show that anti-Americanism might be becoming an internalized component of Turkish society, and that anti-Americanism in Turkey does not relate to specific U.S. administrations.”

That verdict could be applied to nearly every country in the Arab League. Yet pollsters, determined to locate the causes of anti-Americanism in U.S. foreign policy, have designed surveys to exonerate their presumptions. America’s imperial ambitions, rapacious oil companies, the Jewish lobby, apocalyptic evangelicals—all have been blamed for turning the United States into an object of fear and loathing in the Muslim world. Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Center for Muslim Studies at the Gallup Organization and an advisor to the Obama White House, insists that Islam has nothing to do with terrorist rage against the United States: “The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is politics, not piety.” Never mind the observable fact that Muslim leaders openly brandish the Koran to justify every manner of inhuman atrocity.

Opinion polls do not mean a hill of beans in cultures rendered incoherent by despotism, denial, rage, and irrational religion.

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press, directed by Andrew Kohut, has led the research effort to prop up these pernicious myths: The trick is to employ polling methods oblivious to the cultural pathologies raging in Arab and Muslim societies. What does “public opinion” mean under Islamic regimes that outlaw political parties, control the media, underwrite hate speech in sermons and school textbooks, persecute religious minorities, and torture political dissidents? Pew researchers remain unburdened by these complicated realities.

Others are not. Not long ago, a group of moderate European Arabs launched a campaign to prevent Al Jazeera television from being broadcast in Europe. Why? Because they accuse the channel of “fostering extremism” among European Arab youth and “supporting terrorism.” In 2006, when global anti-Americanism was at its zenith, surveys found a majority of Indonesians, Jordanians, Turks, and Egyptians still did not believe that Arabs were responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Pew researchers euphemistically called this finding the result of “fundamentally different views of world events.”)

If the survey results represent attitudes in the Middle East and beyond, then the most cherished liberal assumptions about radical Islam and U.S. foreign policy are exposed as desperate falsehoods.

The Pew Research Center, advised by no less a partisan than former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, continues to make the now incomprehensible claim that “the unilateralist U.S. foreign policy” of George Bush was the engine of anti-Americanism the world over. In a summary report of its work over the last eight years, Pew researchers concluded: “In the view of much of the world, the United States has played the role of bully in the school yard, throwing its weight around with little regard for others’ interests.” Of Pew’s 25 surveys conducted since 2001, America’s image problem was designated “the central, unmistakable finding.”

The actual unmistakable finding, confirmed by the resiliency of anti-Americanism in the era of Obama, is that opinion polls do not mean a hill of beans in cultures rendered incoherent by despotism, denial, rage, and irrational religion. Instead, such surveys merely allow partisans to use foreign narrators to voice their private grievances. These researchers surely realize that countless Arab and Muslim leaders are devoted to disseminating a perversely distorted image of the United States. Yet they carry on, blithely unconcerned that the abnormalities of Islamist societies—where the suicide bomber is a sanctified symbol of martyrdom—might represent an assault on the moral norms of the democratic West.

A more honest approach to polling could help us better understand America’s influence in the world. It might suggest how the ideals of equality, freedom, government by consent, religious liberty—the core doctrines of the American creed—pose a threat to despots and religious demagogues. That would require researchers, however, to suspend their agendas and begin asking tough, open-ended questions to more diverse audiences.

Let the polling begin.

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at the King’s College in New York City.

FURTHER READING: Loconte also critiqued the economics of Pope Benedict’s encyclical in “Morals, Markets, and the Pope.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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