Paul Pillar

The Numbers Still Aren't Good

The Pew Global Attitudes Project released this week the latest of its reports based on opinion polling overseas, which are useful barometers of how foreigners view things of importance to the United States. This report involved seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Asia, with a few questions also asked for comparison in Israel. The report sustains much of the bad news that similar surveys in the Muslim world have been delivering for years. Much about the United States—or more accurately, what the United States does—is poorly received in that part of the world. On a basic question of favorable or unfavorable views of the United States, only Indonesia had more favorable (54%) than unfavorable (40%) responses. Lebanon was a 49-49 tie. In all the other populations in Muslim majority countries surveyed (Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories), the unfavorable response ranged from 75% to 84%. Clearly sour views toward the United States have not solely been a matter of George W. Bush. Although the ingredients of those views have a lot to do with policies and outlooks associated with the administration of the former president, the numbers regarding confidence in Barack Obama suggest that, except in Indonesia, Mr. Obama probably would not win many elections in the other Muslim majority countries. Solid majorities in those countries said they had no, or “not too much” confidence in the current president.

Responses on specific issues help to explain why. Views on Mr. Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, and Iran were all decidedly negative. Views on his handling of political change in the Middle East were not great either, but were markedly better than on the other three issues.

Against the backdrop of disapproval of the president's recent Middle East speech by the Israeli government and its backers, some of the poll's results regarding Israeli opinion are interesting. A majority, albeit only a slight one, of Jewish Israelis expressed “a lot” or “some” confidence in President Obama. In contrast, 60% of Arab Israelis expressed not too much or no confidence. His least favorable numbers in any of the jurisdictions polled were in the Palestinian territories, with 84% expressing no or not too much confidence. The polling was done before the speech, but it looks like the speech is not winning him much more confidence among the Palestinians.

Public opinion in foreign countries matters not because the United States is in a popularity contest. It matters because such views affect U.S. interests in multiple ways. One way is by affecting the incidence of resort to extremism and anti-U.S. terrorism. Another is by setting limits on how much governments can cooperate with the United States. That leads to one more discouraging result in the Pew poll. Majorities in Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, and substantial minorities in Egypt and Turkey, thought their countries had too much cooperation with the United States. The more that democracy expands in the Muslim world, the more that such popular sentiments will constrain public policy.