Obama’s ratings ebb in Muslim world

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Confidence in President Obama among the world’s Muslims is slipping, according to a poll of global attitudes that also found widespread concern that the United States remains a go-it-alone nation even under the new administration.

The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, found support for Obama strong in most nations, even as his rating at home has slipped. But in five of seven Muslim-majority nations that were polled, his popularity slid over the last year, winning approval ratings from about one-third or less of respondents.

The finding will probably be of concern to the White House, which has worked to improve the United States’ image abroad, particularly in the Muslim world.

Obama’s worst grades were for his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of 22 nations polled, in only three, France, Nigeria and Kenya, did the majority of respondents support his approach.

Obama administration officials have been concerned about damage to the White House’s image in the Muslim world stemming from developments in the Gaza Strip, where Israel, a staunch U.S. ally, has imposed a blockade, citing the need to prevent Hamas militants from obtaining arms.

In Pakistan, the number of Muslims who approve of Obama fell from 13% to 8% over the last year. Among Muslims in Egypt, which receives billions in U.S. aid, support for Obama fell from 41% to 31%, and in Turkey, from 33% to 23%.

Many of those polled said the United States didn’t give enough consideration to the views of other countries when making decisions on international issues. The median number who said the United States acts unilaterally was 63%, down slightly from the 67% who used the same description in 2007, when George W. Bush was president.

In most countries, especially wealthier ones, Obama won strong support for the way he has handled the international economic crisis. The exception was the United States, where respondents were almost evenly split.

In Western Europe, support for Obama remains strong. In Germany, 90% believe Obama will do the right thing in foreign affairs, compared to 65% of Americans.

Approval of the United States among Mexicans tumbled after Arizona enacted a law giving police increased powers to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally. Forty-four percent said after the bill’s signing that they approved of the United States, compared with 62% before the signing.

The last year saw a slight increase in the number of Muslims who said that suicide bombing and other forms of violent extremism are justified to protect Islam from its enemies. In Egypt the figure rose to 20% from 15%, and in Jordan it was also 20%, up from 12%.

Still, these levels were below those at mid-decade, after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pew poll touches a sensitive issue for the Obama administration, which has attached great importance to opinion in the Muslim world, as the president demonstrated in his Cairo speech in the fifth month of his presidency.

But the high hopes sparked a year ago in the Arab and Muslim worlds have been replaced in many cases with growing disillusionment and anger toward Washington. A recent editorial in Cairo’s Al Ahram Weekly said the Obama administration had sorely let down the region.

“Where are the promises that Obama made in Cairo last year? Is he really this powerless or is he duplicitous?” the editorial says. “Whatever the answer, the Arab and Muslims worlds need to acknowledge that we are ultimately responsible for finding answers to the crises that are piling up around us.”

Obama and his top commander for the Middle East, Army Gen. David Petraeus, have suggested that Muslim unhappiness with the failure of Mideast peace efforts have compounded security concerns for U.S. forces in the region.

Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, said the second year dip in support might be similar to the traditional dip in midterm election results.

He said Obama’s decision to add troops in Afghanistan was “difficult,” and acknowledged that Muslims “have concerns about Gaza, a concern we share.”

The administration should be getting a boost from its coming withdrawal from Iraq, though signs of that have not shown up yet, Crowley said. He noted that support from Muslims was still up from the Bush administration’s departing numbers.

Shibley Telhami, a specialist on Arab opinion at the University of Maryland, said “it boils down to one issue — the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.