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Is Obama Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Arab and Muslim World?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"It's conceivable," said then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, "that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, 'This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he's not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush.'"

A 2008 Zogby International poll surveyed those in the "friendly" Arab countries of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Eighty-three percent viewed the United States "somewhat" or "very" unfavorably.

Enter President Barack Hussein Obama, a man with a keen and learned understanding of the Arab world -- a man who promised to restore our image through outreach based on mutual respect and understanding. Bush, Obama believed, governed with a swagger and aggressiveness that alienated friends and hardened the hearts of enemies. To forge a "new beginning" and find "common ground," Obama apologized for America's "mistakes."

Candidate Obama said Bush offended would-be allies in the "good war," Afghanistan, by diverting resources to the "stupid" war, Iraq. After winding down the war in Iraq, Obama expected that allies committed to Afghanistan would stay and that new ones would join. He would close down the American "gulag," Guantanamo, and reverse the offensive, civil rights-subverting policies of the Bush administration. He would fight not a "war on terror," but an "overseas contingency operation."

Ronald Reagan became president at 69 years of age, having lived long enough to shed naive notions of hope and change. Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" -- and acted accordingly. He increased military spending, launched the Strategic Defense Initiative and, along with like-minded leaders British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, helped consign the totalitarian regime to, as Reagan put it, the "ash heap of history."

Jimmy Carter urged Americans to ditch our "inordinate fear of communism." President Carter kissed Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev on the cheek to show his desire, as the Obama administration would put it, to "reset" the relationship. Brezhnev returned the kindness by invading Afghanistan, igniting a chain of events that essentially led to 9/11.

Obama's first presidential meeting with a foreign leader was not with that of Great Britain -- one of our two closest allies, whose prime minister stood down opposition within his own party to join the effort in Iraq. Obama met with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Fatah party, to stress the importance of restarting the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" -- which Obama considered essential to moderate Arab and Muslim views.

Obama chastised Israel, the other of our two closest allies, for building "settlements" in east Jerusalem -- even though, pre-Obama, the Palestinian leadership had already accepted construction in that area as part of any future deal. Obama gave his first presidential sit-down interview to Al-Arabiya television network, where he asked "countries like Iran ... to unclench their fist." He hoped to deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, something candidate Obama called a "game changer" and "unacceptable."

But those daily morning threat assessment briefings can change a president.

The Obama administration, to prevent public exposure of intelligence-gathering sources and methods, used the same "state secrets" defense in court as did the Bush administration. Obama continues the policy of rendition, the much-maligned practice of transferring a terrorist prisoner of war from one foreign country to another country that utilizes far harsher interrogation techniques. Guantanamo remains open because the prison contains some vicious terrorists that no country wants. The terror surveillance phone-monitoring program remains, as does the Patriot Act. Obama stepped up the use of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even Obama's declaration to halt waterboarding contains wiggle room.

To the shock of Bush-haters, the Obama Justice Department -- while disagreeing with the conclusions of the Bush lawyers who drafted the so-called "torture memo," which provided a legal basis for waterboarding -- cleared the lawyers of wrongdoing.

Obama negotiated "tough" sanctions against Iran, although Russia, China, India and Turkey continue to trade with that country or have announced plans to do so. Iran remains committed to its nuclear program, continues to threaten Israel, and claims to have dug mass graves in which to deposit bodies of American soldiers should the U.S. use military force to stop its nuclear program.

Despite Obama's request, NATO allies refuse to commit more combat troops to Afghanistan and some countries announced an end to their involvement. Iraq appears to be winding down along the terms negotiated by the Bush administration, but allies are no more eager to help out in Afghanistan.

Now 20 months into the Obama presidency, the question is this: After Obama's "detente" -- and after alienating our two closest allies -- how does the Arab and Muslim world now view America? What percentage in the same six Arab nations -- compared with Bush's last year in office -- now views the United States "very unfavorably" or "somewhat unfavorably"?

The answer: 85 percent -- 2 points higher than Bush.

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