Part of the series "Ten Lessons Since the 9/11 Attacks," in which CFR fellows identify the top threats and responses going forward.†Read more in the series.
Following 9/11, the United States engaged in wrenching soul-searching, asking: "Why do they hate us?" One explanation posited a failure to communicate effectively with the Muslim world, rooted in profound misunderstanding. The principal remedy to this perceived malady was greater public outreach by U.S. government officials to the Muslim world. Perhaps if we engaged Muslim peoples with respect and clarified America's views, so went the logic, then all could be resolved. This became the conventional wisdom.
First President Bush, and then the Obama administration, dispatched special envoys mandated to improve America's image and explain American policies ranging from religion, democracy, human rights, and Israeli-Palestinian peace in the Muslim world.
President Obama took on this explanatory role himself, traveling to Cairo's Al Azhar University, where he reached out the United States' hand to the Muslim world and paid respect to Islam as a religion and civilization. As part of what Obama called a "new beginning," he saw resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a core national interest, condemned Israeli activities on a range of issues, and moved away from America's purported hands-off approach toward Israel.
Yet attitudes toward the United States in the Muslim world remain fundamentally unchanged. A vast majority of Muslims polled by the University of Maryland and Zogby International (PDF) consistently profess a "very unfavorable" attitude toward the United States. Within two years of President Obama's speech, his favorability ratings across the Arab world are at 10 percent or lower. Indeed, U.S. favorability ratings in the Arab world were lower in 2011 than they were in 2008.
While polls suggest U.S. policies are the major source of Muslims' discontent, this disapproval also stems from the motivation Muslims ascribe to these policies. A majority of those polled believe the primary U.S. interest in the Middle East is control of the region's oil. According to recent Pew polling, a majority of the Muslim world believes that Muslim nations are not wealthier due to U.S. and Western policies.
To be sure, the United States' support for Israel is a constant source of Muslim discontent, but so is the prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula rivals. Most Muslims, including those in Pakistan, Turkey, and Indonesia, do not believe Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. With such a world view, public diplomacy alone cannot rectify the gross distortions regarding U.S. behavior and motivation. Muslim leaders also need to challenge pervasive, dangerous myths and provide more vision.
Getting the United States' message out is critical, and public diplomacy is important. U.S. policies, not words of contrition or conciliation, will help change perceptions of the United States in the Muslim World. †But U.S. standing in the region also will not change without real leadership and a serious public debate within the Muslim world about the problems and challenges that plague their region.