Attitudes towards the United States have become increasingly negative among people in the Middle East and other parts of the world, according to recent international public opinion polls. Experts agree that the war in Iraq is a major reason behind the shift, but they disagree on how to reverse the trend. Some believe a policy change is the answer, while others stress the need to bolster America's public diplomacy.
According to a recent BBC World Service poll of 26,000 people in 25 countries (mostly non-Arab), just 29 percent now feel the United States exerts a mainly positive influence on the world. That compares with 36 percent who felt that way a year ago and 40 percent two years ago. When asked about the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, an average of 68 percent of respondents across the 25 countries answered that it provokes more conflict than it prevents.
"Certainly there is a great unhappiness in many countries about the war in Iraq and there is unhappiness (as well) in the United States," says Alberto Fernandez, Director of the office of press and public diplomacy at the U.S. State Department. "President Bush said the situation in Iraq is unacceptable, and so I think it is the largest single factor."
In fact, the Iraq war has become the dominant issue when people think about the United States, according to Dr. John Zogby, President of Zogby International, a prominent worldwide polling organization. "Our chief public diplomacy these days is war," Zogby says. The war in Iraq is not only seen as a failure, he says, but has also caused people in the rest of the world to think of the U.S. in terms of "cowboy diplomacy" and building an American Empire.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Ted Kattouf believes that no matter how skillfully the United States attempts to polish its image, America's global reputation stands or falls not on its words, but its deeds. "You can't put lipstick on a pig," he says, meaning cosmetic changes will not improve the situation. "It is the policy. What is wrong is not that we do not know how to market ourselves, or that we do not have any good brains in the U.S. government who know anything about public diplomacy. But the fact of the matter is that we have done tremendous harm."
Despite the rising negativity in public perceptions of the United States, pollster John Zogby says there are still some positive signs. He notes that the U.S. is still a source of admiration for many people because of its democracy, technology, science, and culture.
He believes the U.S. must build on these strengths in order to improve its image, and its effectiveness, especially in the war-torn Middle East. "The U.S. has got to be part of -- if not take the lead -- in a regional conference that deals with Iraq, with Israel, Palestine and other issues that face the region, Lebanon included," Zogby says. "But there has to be a rebirth of public diplomacy as well."
Helle Dale, Director of the private Allison Center for foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation says the U.S. should pay closer attention to its radio and TV broadcasts to the Middle East. "I do not think we are doing as good a job as we can," she says. "Targeting the younger audiences with American popular culture serves the purpose obviously of getting them to listen. But the question is do we then broadcast them a message that is important to listen to? And that is I think what we need to pay more attention to."
Noting that there is a lot of competition in the Middle East for an audience, Dale adds that the U.S. also needs to see which media are actually getting an audience to watch or listen.
"I think that we need to have the most effective American broadcasts that we can to the region and we also need to engage audiences wherever they are," says U.S. State Department public diplomacy officer Alberto Fernandez. "If the audiences are in Al-Jazeera we need to be on Al-Jazeera, but we also need to have our own message out directly."
While acknowledging the importance of U.S. media efforts, international pollster John Zogby suggests that improving the American image in the Middle East and beyond will involve more than polished programming. "What I know about Arabs, Muslims in general, what I know about Africans, Asians and Latin Americans is that it is not the 30-second advertisement or the rock song by Madonna that has the greatest appeal. It is the relationship," Zogby says. "And what the United States is not doing is taking the time to communicate with people and listening to their needs and their complaints."
In the long run, Zogby says, Americans can look to 2008, when a newly-elected president will make a fresh start trying to improve the country's standing in world opinion.