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Obama Still Globally Popular, But Doubts Grow in Muslim World

While U.S. President Barack Obama has largely retained huge popularity among most of the world’s publics, disillusionment with his leadership appears to have set in throughout much of the Islamic world, according to the latest annual survey of global public opinion by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre released in mid-June.

And despite Obama’s personal popularity, disapproval of U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East and Southwest Asia, remains high in much of the world, according to the survey by the Centre’s Global Attitudes Project (GAP).

“(Obama) has an amazing degree of popularity,” noted former Republican Sen. John Danforth, who co-chairs GAP along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “(But) I don’t see the translation of support for Obama into support for specific policies.”

Moreover, the perception that Washington acts on the world stage without taking sufficient account of the interests of other countries an impression that came to dominate foreign views of the U.S. under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush – persists, according to the survey, which covered 22 of the world’s most populous and influential countries.

“The U.S. continues to be seen as acting unilaterally,” said Andrew Kohout, the Research Centre’s president, who has directed all nine surveys GAP has published since 2001.

At the same time, Kohout stressed that Obama’s popularity has significantly improved Washington’s image around the world.

“Obama has caged the 800-pound gorilla in the way the U.S. is viewed,” he noted. “Concern about American power isn’t gone, but it has become less salient.”

With the exception of Pakistan and Indonesia, the survey also found strongly unfavourable views of Iran and even stronger opposition to its possible acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Pluralities or majorities in most countries, particularly Washington’s NATO’s allies, said it was more important to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons than to avoid military conflict.

Despite December’s Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, the survey also found a marked decline in the percentage of people, particularly in the world’s wealthiest countries, who considered global warming a “very serious problem”.

In addition to Pakistan and Indonesia, this year’s edition of the GAP interviewed respondents in South Korea, India, Japan, and China in Asia; Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico in Latin America; and Kenya and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa.

Also covered were Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt in the Greater Middle East; Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Poland in Europe; and the U.S. in North America.

Overall, some 24,000 respondents were interviewed between Apr. 7 and May 8. Respondents were asked in some detail about their views on the global economy, China, and world leaders, as well as on Obama, U.S. foreign policy, Iran, and global warming and several other issues.

Last year’s GAP survey, which was conducted from mid-March to mid-June 2009, found that Obama’s ascendancy had restored Washington’s image virtually everywhere around the world close to the levels it enjoyed before Bush, whose 2003 invasion of Iraq drove global approval ratings for the U.S. to unprecedented lows, took power in 2001.

In all but one of the 24 countries surveyed last year, respondents expressed significantly more confidence – often by huge margins, particularly in Western Europe – that Obama “will do the right thing in world affairs” than they had said about Bush in 2008. The one exception was Israel.

According to the latest poll, confidence in Obama remains remarkably high – a median of 64 percent of all countries covered by the survey (43 percentage points higher than Bush in 2007) – although it has slipped a few percentage points in Western Europe and somewhat more in many of the other countries surveyed from last year’s tally.

Russia, with which Obama has tried to “re-set” relations over the past year, was one significant exception where confidence in his performance actually rose during the past year.

Opinions of the United States, which also improved markedly after Obama’s election, have also remained far more positive – a median of 60 percent, 20 percentage points higher than in 2007.

As with confidence in Obama, however, positive opinions of the U.S. slipped in a number of countries over the past year, most notably in Egypt (from 27 percent favourable to 17 percent), India (76 percent to 66 percent), and Mexico (69 percent to 56 percent).

Kohout attributed the sharp drop in Washington’s image in Mexico primarily to public anger there over the recent passage of an anti-immigration law in Arizona.

While confidence in Obama and positive opinions of the United States remained high, favourable assessments of U.S. foreign policy declined over the past year in every country except Kenya and Indonesia. Aside from Mexico and India, declines were particularly pronounced in Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan.

In the Muslim world more generally, confidence in Obama himself – which, with the exception of Indonesia, did not exceed 45 percent in last year’s poll – declined across the board. In Turkey, they fell from 33 to 23 percent; in Egypt, from 41 to 31 percent; and in Lebanon, from 45 to 35 percent.

As for specific policies majorities or pluralities in 15 of the 22 countries surveyed said they approved of Obama’s handling of the global financial crisis and climate change.

But views on his policies in the Greater Middle East and South Asia – specifically, his performance on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – were consistently more negative.

With the exception of Russian respondents, Europeans generally favoured his handling of Iraq and Afghanistan but by relatively small margins for example, pluralities or slight majorities. Opinions in Japan and South Korea were similarly split, while Kenyans and Nigerians were the most supportive.

Pluralities or majorities in the rest of the countries – especially in the Islamic world, but also in China, South Asia, and Latin America – were far more critical. In Turkey and Pakistan, for example, only around five percent of respondents supported Obama’s handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Obama’s performance on the Israel-Palestine conflict drew the lowest scores in most countries: less than 20 percent of respondents in nine countries voiced support for U.S. policy towards the conflict, including only five percent in Turkey and Pakistan, eight percent in Lebanon, and 15 percent in Russia and Jordan.

Kohout indicated that this was before the May 31 incident in which Israel attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza, killing nine Turkish nationals, which he expected would further worsen perspectives toward U.S. policy.

Support for Obama’s handling of Iran policy was nearly as low, despite the fact that majorities or pluralities in 18 of the 22 countries expressed unfavourable views of Tehran. Respondents in Pakistan (72 percent), Indonesia (62 percent), Kenya (46 percent), and Nigeria (44 percent) were the exceptions.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/

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