By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2003; Page A18
The United States is losing a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, according to a survey released yesterday.
The survey, conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, suggests that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden inspires more confidence than President Bush across much of the Arab and Muslim world. It also shows a further slump in public perceptions of the United States over the past year around the globe, with favorable ratings down to as low as 1 percent in Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
"We have gone from bad to worse over the past year," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, noting that hostility toward the United States has increased as a result of the invasion of Iraq. "We have been unable to make the case against bin Laden with Muslims because they see the United States as a threat."
The poll illustrated increasingly divergent political perceptions between Muslim and Western countries on issues ranging from the popularity of bin Laden to whether the Iraqi people will be better off without Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, significant majorities of Muslims interviewed by the pollsters expressed enthusiasm for Western-style democratic ideas and globalization.
The percentage of people expressing "a lot of confidence" or "some confidence" in bin Laden was higher than similar ratings for Bush in the Palestinian territories (71 percent to 1 percent), Morocco (49 percent to 2 percent), Jordan (55 percent to 1 percent), Indonesia (58 percent to 8 percent) and Turkey (15 percent to 8 percent). The only Arab countries where Bush outscored the man viewed by most Westerners as an international terrorism mastermind were Lebanon (17 percent to 14 percent) and Kuwait (62 percent to 19 percent). Kuwait was freed from Iraqi occupation in 1991 by U.S.-led forces and served as the jumping-off point for the invasion of Iraq.
Curiously, the survey suggested little correlation between support for bin Laden and hostility to American ideas and cultural products. People who expressed a favorable opinion of bin Laden were just as likely to appreciate American technology and cultural products as people opposed to bin Laden, Kohut said. Pro- and anti-bin Laden respondents also differed little in their views on the workability of Western-style democracy in the Arab world.
The survey was conducted April 28 to May 15 among 16,000 interviewees across 20 countries and in the Palestinian territories, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The polling results suggest that there has been some improvement in attitudes toward the United States since the days leading up to the war in Iraq, but the overall trend has been downward over the past year. The decline varies from country to country. In Britain, 70 percent of respondents expressed a positive view of the United States, compared with 75 percent last year. In Canada, the favorable rating for the United States was 63 percent, down from 72 percent; in Russia, 36 percent, down from 71 percent; in Indonesia, 15 percent, down from 61 percent; and in Jordan, 1 percent, down from 25 percent.
The downward trend comes despite an intensive U.S. public diplomacy campaign designed to counter al Qaeda propaganda and promote U.S. policies to an increasingly skeptical global audience. The diplomatic efforts toward the Arab world have included a "media outreach" campaign featuring interviews with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other U.S. officials, the launching of FM radio stations mixing news and popular music aimed at young Arabs, and a $15 million television advertising drive showcasing the achievements of Arab Americans
While acknowledging that the image of the United States has suffered a series of knocks in the past two years, State Department officials argue the trend will reverse itself once the Bush administration is able to show progress in key areas, such as reconstructing Iraq and relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Kohut is not so sure. "These are deeply held views," he said. "If there is progress in the peace process, things are likely to improve, but we have a long way to go to rebuild trust toward the United States in the Middle East."