Even though President Obama is enjoying his holidays in Hawaii, he will most certainly think about his past and future decisions. Without a doubt, the Middle East will figure prominently among his list of key topics for the year 2014. Improving the distrustful relationship between the United States and the Muslim world has been one of the main goals of the Obama administration, attained with limited success at best.
From his first days in office, Obama has sought a rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to such an extent that some governors, such as Rick Perry, have accused him of betraying Israel. In November, after weeks of secret talks, he has struck a major symbolic coup by making a phone call to the Iranian president Rouhani. In 2009, during a landmark speech in Cairo, he boldly declared to ‘seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect’.
However, the results of the yearly Pew Research Global Attitudes Project paint a somewhat pessimistic picture. The five countries surveyed that have the least favourable opinion of the United States are all Muslim countries from the Middle East. Despite the administration’s conciliatory rhetoric, its actions speak a different language and give an easy explanation for the dislike, and even hatred, the United States encounters in these countries.
For example, only 11% of Pakistanis see the United States in favourable terms. Regularly, Pakistanis are killed by U.S. drone strikes. The most recent drone strike happened only a week ago, on 26th December, and hit a compound in a village bordering Afghanistan. It is not a surprise that a population that is attacked weekly by a foreign military, in the absence of an official state of war, dislikes this country. Indeed, the American drone policy is a very unpopular one all around the world. In only three of the countries surveyed in the Pew project does a majority of the population approve of the U.S. drone policy. Unsurprisingly, two of them are Israel and the United States itself.
In Egypt, 84% held unfavourable views of the United States, and this too may be down to the US’s recent foreign policy. Many Egyptians were disappointed by America’s inaction during the struggles against Hosni Mubarak, as well as the lack of condemnation of the coup d’état staged by the Egyptian military.
There is, however, an important distinction to make. What is absent from all the explanations given above, are ideological or religious differences. While the bottom five countries with the least favourable view of the United States are all Muslim, the decisive factor is that they are all from the Middle East. Muslim countries in other regions of the world view the United States in much more positive terms.
It is American policy in the Middle East that frustrates the populations from Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, and Jordan, not an apparent hatred of American values and civilization. For example, majorities in Senegal (81%), Indonesia (61%) and Malaysia (55%) have a favourable view of the United States. These countries are all overwhelmingly Muslim, and yet the opinions are more favourable than some European countries.
Further evidence from the Pew project supports this conclusion: that it is American policies that make other populations dislike the United States and not any innate hatred of American values.
The revelations by former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden of the worldwide mass surveillance organized by the American national security apparatus have severely damaged American reputation throughout the world. For example, in Germany (53%) and Argentina (41%), the spying on Chancellor Merkel, and President Kirchner respectively, seems to have had a major detrimental effect upon American popularity.
It suggests that the United States’ unpopularity stems from its policies and actions rather than the existing belief that other populations and/or religions have an intrinsic hatred of American civilization.
On a more positive note, then, it is crucial to note that this finding implies that declining American popularity is not inevitable and that a change in American foreign policy, away from unilateralism, military muscle-flexing and secret mass surveillance, towards multilateralism, soft power and transparency will result in a much-improved international standing of the United States. It is unsurprising that a country behaving in such a way is unpopular; nobody likes the bully in the playground. In this sense, it is also important to register that the Pew project also found that other countries see American democracy, ideas and customs in much more favourable terms than its drone strike policy.