The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, July 27, 2009

They Really Like Us Now! So What?

Perhaps the Most Encouraging Sign in a New Poll Is Who Likes Us Less Nowadays

President Obama has not had much encouraging news in the polls lately. Today’s Rasmussen daily tracking poll finds him falling below fifty percent popularity for the first time in his Presidency. Similarly, voters dislike the proposed Democratic Congressional healthcare plans, Obama’s signature initiative for this year, by about a ten point margin. This is a complete turnaround from a mere month ago.

Thus, it must have seemed like manna from heaven for his Administration last Thursday when the Pew Institute published the results of a poll taken among two dozen foreign countries that shows America’s perception by the world has skyrocketed into the affirmative since Obama took office. In twenty-one countries scattered throughout Western Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, an average seventy-one percent of respondents voiced a positive view of the United States, up from a mere seventeen percent in those same countries when former President Bush was in office.

For those gushing, “They like us! They really like us!” Sally Field-style over this legitimately encouraging news, the harder follow-up question cannot be avoided – “So what?”

Popularity is a fine thing but it does not guarantee respect or influence. On the other hand, it can help grease the skids toward them. Moreover, while influence is certainly possible while unpopular, true respect seldom follows from unpopularity.

This accomplishment is less impressive in its own right than as a first step leading to greater international cooperation and consensus with U.S. foreign policy. Whether those subsequent steps will come to fruition remains unclear. However, even on its own, it does counter the argument that Obama’s reliance on diplomacy is just feel-good mumbo jumbo that will lead to a loss of authority and esteem for the U.S.

Still, there are warning signs of fragility in the poll results. Much like his situation at home, Pew reports improvements in the perception of America by other nations “are being driven much more by personal confidence in Obama than by . . . specific [U.S.] policies.”

Obama’s greatest strength among foreigners may be the distance perceived between him and the policies of his predecessor. His decision to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and establishment of a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, met with universal approval. This is also consistent with continuing public patience for his domestic policies. Rasmussen recently found that fifty-four percent of Americans still place primary blame on former President Bush for the nation’s current economic problems, unchanged from a month earlier.

Yet the most significant finding by the poll may not be who likes us more but rather who likes us less nowadays. Among all the nations surveyed, regard for the U.S. decreased in only one since Obama took office – Israel. The significance in this derives from that fact that while Obama has gained modest ground for America in some parts of the Muslim world, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia, distrust remains unchanged and at very high levels in the Palestinian territories.

Key to negotiating a lasting settlement in this long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is achieving compromise and concessions from both parties. This requires trust in the U.S. as a broker by both parties. The Palestinians will never trust the U.S. as someone who will support them, at least some of the time, if we continue to give them every reason to believe we will never fail to support Israel all of the time.

We have certainly given Israel that impression up to this point. Although we often criticize the Israeli government, we have never seriously threatened to withdraw aid, let alone level sanction against them in reprisal for their truculence or aggression. Within that safety net, they have sometimes willingly made concessions only to subsequently withdraw them or act intrusively in other ways.

While it should not be U.S. policy to deliberately foster bad blood with a long-established ally, signs of visible disapproval toward us by Israel may do more to foster good blood with Palestinians than any set of our promises. The unflinching sternness exhibited by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton of late toward Israeli provocations is yet another encouraging first step that could led to limited trust and influence for the U.S. within certain parts of the Muslim world long before we gain popularity there (if ever).

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