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How Muslim world feels about Obama: disappointed

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama continues to be popular and to lift America’s image in much of the world, with the notable exception of Muslim countries — where the president is less favorably viewed than he was a year ago.

That is a key finding of the Pew Global Attitudes survey, an annual snapshot of world opinion that has chronicled the fall and rise of America’s image abroad in the years since 9/11 and, more recently, the advent of Obama’s presidency.

A year after Obama’s groundbreaking Cairo speech, in which he spoke to the world’s Muslim communities, the new survey finds a falloff in the numbers for America in Muslim countries. Major factors in the soured opinions, analysts say, are disappointment in the perceived lack of follow-through on Obama’s call at Cairo for better Western-Muslim relations and lingering disagreement with the US military’s intervention in Muslim countries.

 “The lack of support [for the United States] in the Muslim world is coincident with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Andrew Kohut, president of Washington’s Pew Research Center, which conducts the annual survey. He spoke Thursday morning at a Monitor breakfast, where the survey was previewed.

There’s also “disappointment” among Muslims about the US under Obama, Mr. Kohut says. Many have a perception, for example, that the US still “does not deal fairly” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Still, the survey of 22 countries finds that Obama is more popular abroad than at home – and that the president’s popularity continues to boost America’s global image. Views of the US have jumped in both China and Russia, while Obama remains highly popular in Western Europe.

But US favorability and confidence in Obama have slipped in a number of key Muslim-majority countries, the survey finds. In Egypt, those with a positive view of America dropped from 27 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2010 – the lowest level in five years (and thus lower than in a number of the years of George W. Bush’s presidency). Support for Obama in Turkey fell by a third, from 33 to 23 percent, and on the whole, Turkey – a NATO ally – sees the US as a potential military threat.

Also according to the survey: Support among Muslim populations for terrorist actions like suicide bombings and for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda continues to wane. But what appears to complicate the view of terrorism and efforts to stop it is when US policy and US leadership is brought into the mix.

“Where we see the lack of support is for the US-led actions” like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said John Danforth, co-chair of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, at the Monitor breakfast. “The more concrete the actions, the less they like the US,” said the former US senator and former US ambassador to the United Nations.

Others cite a perceived lack of follow-through after the Cairo speech as the key factor in the dip America’s numbers took in Muslim countries.

“Cairo was a very large departure, a speech by an American president in a Muslim country … and there was a lot of hope that there would be a lot more intervention” by the US on issues of interest to Muslim populations, such as the Middle East peace process, said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the breakfast. She cochairs the Global Attitudes Project.

“There is recognition of this [sense of unfulfilled expectation] in the administration,” Ms. Albright maintained. Initiatives such as Obamas’s recent “entrepreneurship summit” with Muslim business representatives and organizations suggest “they are trying to find ways that there can be more interaction,” she added.

Of course, with the US experiencing its worst environmental disaster in history and a shaky economy, many Americans will ask: What does it matter what the world thinks of us?

“It matters because no matter how strong we are, the US cannot do everything by itself,” said Albright. Today’s biggest challenges – including the economy, terrorism, and energy – require multinational and cross-border solutions, the former secretary of State said.

“All these issues … affect our day-to-day life,” she said. And “if the US is doing well and is popular, then the US can do something.”

As an example, she singled out Obama’s focus on nuclear nonproliferation: His nuclear-security summit in Washington in April was the largest gathering of global leadership in the US since the founding of the UN. With Obama popular around the world, she said, leaders from many countries were eager to be seen as associates of the popular American leader and as cooperating with him on important issues.

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