President Obama and Osama bin Laden - neck and neck in the polls

As the media has been reporting since the release of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project poll on Thursday (July 23), Barack Obama's rise to the White House has not translated to an identifiable change in the way Arabs see the United States.
Cloudy strategies in the Middle-East - Obama addresses a joint session of Congress. © Getty Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool

BEIRUT, July 24, 2009 (MENASSAT) - The poll suggests that while America's image has been boosted elsewhere in the world, the overriding opinion of the United States in the Arab world is still negative.

Pew conducted nearly 27,000 interviews from May 18 to June 16 among 24 nations and the Palestinian territories.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, one of the co-chairs of the survey, was on hand at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on Thursday to present the report.

Commenting on the findings, she told the Toronto Star, "This (report) is tremendously encouraging. For those of us who believe that the way we fought terrorism in the past only created more terrorists, it shows we are on a better glidepath today."

Albright's optimism, however, doesn't take away from the uphill battle that the White House faces in order to erase what the Arab and Muslim worlds see as regional policy holdovers from the Bush administration.

Even after Obama's lauded Cairo speech to the Arab and Muslim worlds in June, the report states, "More generally, there is little evidence that a more positively regarded U.S. president has spurred further declines in support for terrorism in Muslim countries.”

Chief among Obama's foreign policy directives experiencing significant confidence blowback among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle-East was the White House stance on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

At least two-thirds of respondents from Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan don’t expect the U.S. president to practice a fair hand when negotiating a potential peace settlement with the Middle-East's longest running and most intractable conflict.

Political analyst and professor at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous told MENASSAT that he thinks the poll is an accurate reading of Arab reactions to the new U.S. administration. "I can say that even a lot of Americans living in the Middle-East - Republican and Democrat - would agree with the polling results because he's not done enough yet to prove that he's following a distinctly different approach to that of George W. Bush."

Indeed, Palestinians showed very little trust in the new US president with only 22 percent saying that Obama inspired confidence versus 52 percent for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

John Danforth a former U.S. senator and co-chair of the survey project with Pew said, "It's great to be popular, just wonderful," referring to Obama's approval ratings in the rest of the world, but he said, "I don't think these numbers will translate into anything that's real."

Obama has had very little time in his 7 months in office to tackle the problems in the Arab world, according to Sensenig-Dabbous, who said the real problems in the Palestinian-Israeli issue lies at home - domestically in the United States. "I think the biggest problem he has in the US, probably more so than internationally, is to have the political strength to stand up to the Israeli lobby,"

He adds, "Arabs and Palestinians (and Muslims) want to see a pattern that shows there is movement on these intractable issue - but they haven't seen the practical proof that Obama is going to deliver. So, yes, I will say their skeptism is justified, we do know that the US foreign policy towards israel has been the same regardless of whether there has been a Republican or a Democrat in the White House."

Israeli approval ratings of Obama showed a growing mistrust in his foreign policy decisions in the Arab world, particularly towards the Israel-Palestinian conflict - although 71 percent of Israelis view Obama favorably, that number is down 7 percent from Bush's approval rating.

Other contentious issues that were discussed in the poll included the closing down of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, and the avowal to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. Ninety-one percent of Lebanese approved of this decision. But Danforth says these policy decisions are more about his popularity in the end.

"He's telling people what they want to hear, but when he asks for something he doesn't get anything (from congress)," the former senator said.

The largest improvements in Obama's favorability ratings were from western countries - namely in Europe.

And overall Obama's favorability ratings among Muslim nations - like Indonesia where Obama spent a portion of his youth - have improved, but were not always positive.

A large percentage of Pakistani interviewees - some 64 percent - said they viewed America more as an enemy than a friend.

Previously the Pew Global Attitudes project had tracked the abysmal foreign policy track record of the George W. Bush era, and Sensenig-Dabbous said that not much could be worse that those 8-years.

"I don't think that people in the Arab world are holding things against Obama, because in the end, people in the Arab world have been dealing with the U.S. foreign policy mess for a long long time, and I think they are going to be patient and see what Obama really does," he said.