Middle East

Anti-US sentiment still pervades Muslim world

Washington: The persistence and pervasiveness of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world as disclosed by the most recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project (GAP) should prompt a major re-think of US Middle East policies and the way the Bush administration is pursuing its "war on terrorism," according to regional specialists here.

The overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward the US and Bush in particular reflected in the survey shows that Washington may be winning the military battles it is fighting in the region but appears to be losing the larger war for Muslim "hearts and minds," according to experts.

"The fight against Al-Qaeda has to be a counter-insurgency operation, and that means winning hearts and minds," according to Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan. "You have to find ways of reducing the recruitment pool of the insurgents."

"But this poll demonstrates to me that the Bush administration has completely failed in that aspect of counter-insurgency," he said, emphasizing the results from Jordan and Morocco, in particular.

"A major goal of the invasion of Iraq was to transform the region more to our liking," stressed former Ambassador Chas Freeman, president of the Washington-based Middle East Policy council. "Unfortunately, the poll suggests that that goal is not being achieved."

The new survey, the latest in a series of five published by the GAP dating back to 2000, interviewed respondents from the United States and four European countries (Britain, France, Germany and Russia), and four predominantly Muslim countries (Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey and Morocco) about their opinions of the United States, its war on terrorism, the war in Iraq and related issues in late February and early March.

The same countries were also polled in April 2002; on the eve of the US-led Iraq invasion in March 2003; and immediately after the invasion last May, permitting analysts to spot trends in changes in popular opinion. In each of the four Muslim countries, some 1,000 respondents were interviewed by telephone.

The new survey found that large majorities in each of the eight foreign nations believe that Washington pays little or no attention to their country's interests in making its foreign-policy decisions, and that, with the exception of Britain, large majorities in Europe now believe the continent would be better off if its leaders pursued policies independent of Washington. Even in Britain, 56 percent of respondents agreed with that view.

As for the predominantly Muslim countries, the survey found that the level of anger directed against the United States has eased somewhat since last year's invasion, and that in Turkey and Morocco - both of which have suffered serious terrorist incidents in the past year - public support for the US war on terrorism has risen over the same period, albeit to substantially less than a majority.

"Those bumps (in Washington's favor) are not the result of any mellowing of views toward the US, but rather the result of serious misjudgments and errors by Al-Qaeda for directing attacks not just against Westerners, but against Westernized Muslims or Arabs. That's brought home to people that Al-Qaeda is a menace not just to the US, but also to more modern-minded parts of the Muslim world," he added.

"In other words, we're blessed with an enemy that has shown it's capable of grievous errors in judgment."

But that is about the only good news in the survey from the four Muslim countries where majorities ranging from 68 percent in Pakistan to 87 percent in Jordan said they supported their governments' refusal to back the US invasion.

The findings regarding the relative popularity in the Muslim world of Bush and Osama bin Laden also startled some analysts here. Nearly two-thirds of Pakistani respondents said they held a "favorable" opinion of bin Laden, compared to only 7 percent who said they felt similarly about Bush. In Jordan the gap was 55-3 in favor of bin Laden; in Morocco, it was 45-8. Only in Turkey did respondents give Bush a higher favorability rating of 21-11 percent.

"This is pretty scary, I have to admit," said one State Department official, who asked not to be identified. "It certainly shows that we're not getting the message across."

Perhaps more striking were findings about the justifiability of suicide bombings against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq. In Turkey, 31 percent of respondents said such attacks were justified; that percentage rose to 46 percent in Pakistan; 66 percent in Morocco, and 70 percent in Jordan. In each country except Turkey, support for suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israelis was somewhat higher, rising to 86 percent among respondents in Jordan.

"Unfortunately, to many Arabs, Israeli occupation is as worthy of resistance as the Nazi occupation was in France," noted Freeman. "The problem now with Iraq in the Arab and Muslim world is (its occupation) is equated with the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza."

The survey also found a dramatic decline in Washington's credibility in both Europe and the Muslim world.

Asked whether Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair lied in their pre-war claims about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs - as opposed to having received bad intelligence - around two-thirds of respondents in Pakistan, Turkey and Jordan said they lied.

"Nobody in the region thought that Baathist Iraq was a threat to the US," said Cole, "and the idea that the American and British publics bought into this was implausible to people there. This clearly was a war of choice; there was no objective factor that forced the war. Those attitudes are reflected in the poll," he added.

Indeed, the survey found overwhelming skepticism that Washington's war on terrorism is really directed against terrorism. Only 20 percent of Turks, 17 percent of Moroccans, 11 percent of Jordanians, and 6 percent of Pakistanis said they believed the efforts were sincere.

Asked what Washington's real motivations for its war on terrorism were, collectively nearly two thirds of respondents from Muslim countries said Washington's desire to control Middle East oil was important (Jordan was highest at 71 percent); around 60 percent cited its desire to "dominate the world; and around 50 percent cited "targeting unfriendly Muslim governments." The same percentage also cited "protecting Israel" as an important factor, although 70 percent of Jordanians opted for that explanation.

"We (are) never going to ever hear the end of the great conspiracy until we have left Iraq," said former Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Richard Murphy, currently with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. "And that doesn't mean (US overseer Paul) Bremer handing off to a US Embassy, but rather the point to where our military are gone and the Iraqis are really able to exercise their sovereign will."

Collectively, about two-thirds of respondents in Muslim countries said they had less confidence that the US wants to promote democracy in the region as a result of the war than they did previously.

Significantly, the most skeptical of the four nationalities were the Turks whose Parliament voted against participating in the invasion despite heavy US pressure. Nearly three-quarters of Turkish respondents said they had lost confidence in Washington's commitment to spreading democracy as a result of the war.

"People in the region didn't particularly like Saddam Hussein for the most part, but they also have suffered from 200 years of Western colonialism and have seen many invasions by Britain and France on rather flimsy pretexts," said Cole.

"And so, from that nationalist, anti-colonial point of view, the Iraq war looks very different in the Middle East than it does here. It's something Americans don't think about."

Confidence that the United States and its allies were best suited to help Iraq form a stable government was low across the board in Europe and Muslim countries alike, from 4 percent who agreed with that proposition in Pakistan to 17 percent in Morocco.

Respondents in the Muslim countries expressed greater confidence in the United Nations (up to 59 percent of Turks, but only 15 percent of Jordanians), but not nearly as high as their counterparts in the three Western European nations (around 83 percent).

Substantial majorities in each of the Muslim countries with the exception of Jordan agreed that the Iraq war hurt the anti-terrorism fight far more than it helped. Unlike Europeans, where majorities said the Iraqi people will be better off as a result of Saddam's ouster, most respondents in Muslim countries said they would be worse off - from a plurality of 44 percent in Turkey to a substantial majority of 70 percent in Jordan.

Even while a somewhat higher percentage of respondents in Muslim nations said their overall view of the US was favorable compared to last May, from 15 percent to 30 percent in Turkey, 13 percent to 21 percent in Pakistan, and from 1 percent to 5 percent in Jordan; their views of the American people have become less favorable over the last year. In Morocco, the "favorable" percentage dropped from 54 percent to 37 percent; in Pakistan, from 38 percent to 25 percent.

"This poll is once again a wake-up call for Americans," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the CFR's Middle East Forum.

"We ourselves want to project a foreign policy based on American values and good intentions, but virtually no one in the region sees it that way."

 

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