Kohut: Muslim ’Fear and Loathing’ of the U.S.

June 19, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says that the Iraq war caused further damage to the global image of the United States. Antipathy toward Washington is spreading in many Islamic countries, some of which view the United States as a threat. In a recent Pew survey, “majorities in seven of eight Muslim countries think that the United States might threaten their country militarily,” Kohut says. “Last year we had loathing of the United States, this year we have fear and loathing.”

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The war also boosted anti-U.S. and anti-Bush views in Europe. President Bush “comes across to the Europeans as the quintessential American who doesn’t understand Europe and doesn’t care as much about Europe as other presidents have,” Kohut says.

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Polls and Public Opinion

Kohut, the former head of the Gallup Organization, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on June 18, 2003.

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The results of the Pew Center’s latest poll of world attitudes toward the United States are disturbing. Please summarize its conclusions.

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The image of the United States has been slipping around the world. Our survey in 2002 found fewer people in most countries having a favorable view of the United States compared to surveys taken by the State Department prior to the 9/11 attacks, in 2000 and 1999. This year, in a survey taken in 20 countries and the Palestinian Authority after the war in Iraq, we see the image of America slipping even further. This includes views of the American people themselves.

We see other ways in which the publics of the world have been divided by the war in Iraq. One, the image of the United Nations has slipped just about everywhere— the percentage of people saying it’s having a good effect on countries [is] down consistently not only in countries that opposed the war but also in the United States and Britain. We see a greater percentage of Europeans saying there should be more independence from the United States. The transatlantic relationship, a pillar of the post-World War II era, has been undermined in terms of public attitudes by the war in Iraq. And we also see the bottom falling out in attitudes toward the United States in the Muslim world.

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Polls and Public Opinion

Is that still the case in the Muslim world? Press opinion toward the United States, based on what I see on the Internet, seems to have moderated since the end of the Iraq war.

That may be press opinion, but looking at the ways in which the Muslim publics that we surveyed this year viewed us versus [their opinions] last year, last year was very bad, and this year is very, very bad. The percentage of Muslims saying that they think that there are threats to Islam has increased in most countries. There’s a general sense that there’s a worldwide threat to Islam, and guess who that threat is? Majorities in seven of eight Muslim countries think that the United States might threaten their country militarily. Last year we had loathing of the United States, this year we have fear and loathing.

There’s one other point I want to make about the Muslim world. Last year, we found Muslim antipathy toward the United States in the Mideast and in Pakistan. This year we find it all around the world. We also find it in Africa, among Nigerian Muslims, and in Indonesia. It’s a deepening and a spreading of antagonism toward the United States post-Iraq. And [there is] the very sensational [survey] finding that publics in so many Muslim countries have high confidence in Osama bin Laden.

What about European attitudes toward the United States?

Favorable opinions are even lower than they were last year. [There is an] increasing view that the United States is unilateralist, that perhaps Europe has to find its own foreign policy, or foreign policy that’s more distinct from the United States’ [policy]. Some people have a more favorable view of the United States after the war in Iraq, but it’s only a matter of degree. About 40 percent of the French and Germans give the United States a favorable review. There are a lot of fences to be mended to get back to where we were.

How much of this animosity is directed at President Bush and how much at the United States in general?

When we ask the question, Europeans often say, “The problem is not America, the problem is Bush.” But in fairness to Bush, we see in this series of surveys a great deal of resentment toward American power and suspicion about American power. I think you can make the case that Bush has made this problem worse from a European point of view but, given where we are in history— being the sole superpower and having such a huge gap between our power and the power of the rest of the world— a certain kind of resentment is natural.

We saw that in response to the attacks after September 11. People were very sympathetic, but it wasn’t very long before they were also saying in Europe, “You know, it’s good the Americans know what it’s like to be vulnerable.” That reflects the resentment of U.S. power. Last year, many Europeans insisted that we wanted to invade Iraq for oil and not because we really wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. This showed the suspicion of American motives. They say it’s Bush, but my own second-guessing is that it goes beyond Bush.

When I interviewed Josef Joffe, the publisher and editor of Die Zeit, the other day, he said one of the issues is that Bush is not Bill Clinton, that Europeans liked Clinton’s personality, whereas Bush comes across quite differently. Is there much to that?

Bush comes across to the Europeans as the quintessential American who doesn’t understand Europe and doesn’t care as much about Europe as other presidents have. This is what we found in Europe in August of ’01, even before the attacks and before the war on terrorism. Long before Iraq was on the agenda, six months into his term, Bush was getting approval ratings that were 40 points below Clinton’s. When we asked why, the people talked about [the Bush administration’s] backing off on the Kyoto [environmental] accords and [the imposition of] steel tariffs on Europe. There’s real hostility, and there has been almost from the get-go in Europe toward Bush.

Are Bush’s ratings about the same as those Ronald Reagan had in his first years as president?

I don’t know, we don’t have [comparable] ratings [for Reagan], but Reagan was not beloved when he wanted to put Pershing missiles into Germany, and the “evil empire” [Reagan’s early description of the Soviet Union] phrase was just about as popular in Europe as [Bush’s] “axis of evil.” But the difference between then and now is the European publics were more engaged in [the U.S.-European] relationship because of the common threat from the Soviet Union. The war on terrorism, which still gets majority support, but a softer majority support than a year ago, doesn’t measure up as a force that competes with the Russian threat, especially to the Germans.

Has the fact that other people and other countries don’t like Americans produced a U.S. backlash?

The percentage of Americans saying they don’t like the French and Germans matches the percentage of French and Germans who say they don’t like us. And the number of Americans saying that they have thought about boycotting French and German products is greater than the number of French and Germans who say they’ve thought about boycotting American products. There’s even a decline in the percentage of Americans who say they have a favorable view of Canada. It’s still pretty high, but it’s not quite as high as it was last year.

How does this play out in the 2004 presidential election?

I don’t know, because I don’t think the president is going to run on “Let’s distance ourselves from Europe,” and I’m not even sure the Democrats are going to run on “The world really doesn’t like us because the American public puts its highest priority on protection.” Look at how Americans have felt about the war in Iraq. The majority say it’s made us safer, it’s aided the war on terrorism. Until that number changes, these [other] numbers are secondary from a political point of view.

Has the public attitude toward Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) changed?

Only in the sense that the smoking gun that the public wanted as a justification for war before the fact is not so important now that the war is over.

So the failure to find WMD, which is getting attention in the press and from some Democrats, is not yet, or is not going to be, a political issue?

Not yet. I think the way it might turn out to be an issue would be if all of a sudden we were to cast an eye on Iran or North Korea, and it might make it harder for the president to get the public behind him on a new venture. The last venture so far has turned out okay from the public’s point of view because it hasn’t been that costly in terms of American lives.

Is the American public willing to stick it out in Iraq?

Yes. One of the most fascinating things to me is the support for nation-building. Nation-building used to be a dirty word, but there’s support for nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, because people think these things are in our national interest, part of protecting us.

In Afghanistan, there’s a lot of criticism that the United States is not doing enough.

There’s more support for doing things than I think the administration recognizes.

What does your poll mean overall for U.S. policymakers?

There are a couple of policy questions here. This poll is mostly seen as bad news here in the United States. But you can argue it a couple of different ways. One of the things that’s reviewed as bad news is that we’re now feared by the Muslim publics. But the policy question is: will this fear make us safer because it will act as a deterrent to those who will do us harm, or will it make us less safe because it will lead to more hatred of the United States and support for terrorism?

What do you think?

I don’t have an opinion. My role is [gathering] public opinion, not to make policy recommendations. The second question is, how concerned should we be about the United Nations? Very concerned, because the Security Council is the only world venue for attempting to resolve conflicts peacefully, or not so concerned because the United Nations hasn’t [had a role in crises] in the Balkans, West Africa, and now Iraq?

The American public has never really liked the United Nations, has it?

That’s not true. The American public has always been critical of the way the United Nations does its job, but has supported the United Nations, far more than the Republicans have been willing to recognize, because Americans have traditionally seen the United Nations as a forum for peace, and there are no alternatives.

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