Muslim World Remains Cool to the U.S.

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Charlotte Beers taught Americans to love Uncle Ben's, but she's having a harder time teaching the Muslim world to love Uncle Sam.

The former advertising industry legend who "branded" America's favorite rice was named Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs last September. Her mission: to counter the widespread anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world so craftily exploited by Osama bin Laden. But a Gallup Poll published Tuesday suggests Ms. Beers has a long way to go in repositioning what she called "the most elegant brand" she'd ever promoted.

Gallup surveyed some 9,900 people in nine Muslim countries during December and January, in the wake of the U.S. military victory over the Taliban. And it found that some 53 percent of respondents had a negative overall picture of the U.S., compared with the 22 percent who hold a positive impression. Only 11 percent responded favorably towards President Bush, while he racked up a 58 percent disapproval rating. This despite the President's efforts reach out for Muslim support in the wake of September 11. Indeed, some 77 percent of all respondents believed that U.S. military action in Afghanistan had been unjustified, compared with only 9 percent who supported it. Even in Turkey, the most pro-U.S. of the countries surveyed, 59 percent of respondents favored the "unjustified" point of view. In a sampling of the populations of other U.S. allies, 69 percent of Kuwaitis, 80 percent of Pakistanis and 89 percent of Indonesians also disapproved of the Afghan campaign.

The silver lining may be the fact that 67 percent of all respondents also believed the September 11 attacks were morally unjustified. Then again, 61 percent believed those attacks were not carried out by Arab groups. That suggests that while they may be in an astonishing state of denial, their basic inclination is to reject terrorism and extremism.

Is this gulf — between the way America perceives itself and the way it is perceived even by ostensibly moderate Muslim opinion — the result of a marketing failure? In a word, no. There's only so much an ad campaign can do. Beers told an interviewer after accepting the account that her job was "to deliver the intangible assets of the United States, things like our belief system and our values." But the Muslim world's hostility is based, in the first instance, less on America's values than on perceptions of its policies. There's no question that conservative Muslim fundamentalists may be driven apoplectic by the freedoms enjoyed by American women or the rights Americans have to speak their minds. But the widespread negative perceptions of America among ordinary, less ideologically inclined Muslims around the world are based, if anything, on a perception that U.S. policies affecting many Muslims are in conflict even with the very values Americans cherish at home.

Look at the PR efforts of the rival "brand" — al Qaeda. Bin Laden's propaganda screeds are almost always built around the plight of ordinary Palestinians and Iraqis, for whose suffering most of the Muslim world holds the U.S. at least partly responsible. Bin Laden also loves to harp on U.S. support for corrupt and authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. It's a cynical ad campaign, of course. Bin Laden has done nothing to help either the Palestinians or the Iraqis, and he's nothing if not another high-born authoritarian himself. But think of it as negative advertising: he knows the concerns of his audience and pounds away relentlessly at the points where those are most at odds with American behavior. That leaves Charlotte Beers very little to work with. As observers who watched her recently trying to sell U.S. foreign policy to a skeptical audience in Cairo noted, the pitch was great, but the audience was never going to love the product.