Obama's star fades in Muslim world

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 12:11 PM

ISTANBUL -- Euphoria swept the world after the election of President Obama, a symbol of hope and yearning for compromise after years of war and resentment toward his predecessor's style and policies. Today, after an electoral rebuke at home, Obama is still popular among America's traditional allies, but his star power among Muslims - a focus of his international outreach - is fading.

American unhappiness with Obama and the government, evident in the staggering blow to incumbents in midterm elections Tuesday, stems largely from concern about the weak U.S. economy, suggesting there will be a basic continuity in U.S. foreign policy.

Still, Obama departs this week on a 10-day, four-country trip to Asia, his longest foreign trip as president, and pundits will keep a close watch for any signs that his weaker position at home is recalibrating his approach abroad. The Afghan war, Mideast peace efforts, Iran's nuclear activities, climate change and the prospect of a currency war rank among global challenges - with trade and finance topping the agenda at summits of world leaders in South Korea and Japan this month.

Democrats lost the U.S. House to resurgent Republicans and suffered setbacks in the Senate, an outcome that will make it harder for Obama, faced with a divided government, to push his policies. Some in China fear an escalation of conflict over trade issues if the president seeks to deflect tougher Republican criticism of economic recovery plans.

"It is easier to accuse China of making that mess," said Xiong Zhiyong, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University who specializes in U.S.-China relations.

There is uncertainty, too, in the Middle East, where some Israelis believe he will have less leverage over them because of his party's electoral losses. Many Israelis mistrust Obama, pointing to pressure on them to renew a slowdown on settlement construction as evidence that the United States is favoring the Palestinian side in its role as mediator.

Obama's legislative achievements, which include an economic stimulus bill and a landmark health care measure, failed to dissipate frustration fueled by a sense that he has lost the electrifying power to inspire that he displayed as a candidate.

Yet in many countries, his call for multilateralism, which runs parallel to a decline in American diplomatic and economic clout, remains a welcome departure from the era of President Bush, whose two-term presidency was largely defined by the war in Iraq and the divisive debates on which it hinged. Obama's brand has done much to repair America's tarnished image, some citizens believe, even if concrete results have been lacking.

"People around the world were expecting him to be God," said Mehmet Onol, a 29-year-old manager at the Istanbul branch of a New York-based consulting firm. "The great expectations are what make his term seem to be a disappointment."

A summer survey by the German Marshall Fund in the United States found that 78 percent of respondents in the European Union approved of how Obama was handling international policy, a slight dip from last year. The same study showed Obama's approval plunging by nearly half to 28 percent in Turkey, reflecting traditional anti-American sentiment in a predominantly Muslim country that is a NATO ally. Opposition to the Iraq war was fierce in Turkey, whose parliament denied permission to U.S. troops to use bases on its soil in the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Similarly, a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, released in June, found that Obama's approval ratings were generally positive outside the Muslim world, although not quite as high as in 2009. However, the poll found that in Egypt, the percentage of Muslims expressing confidence in Obama fell 10 percent to 31 percent over the same period; from 33 percent to 23 percent in Turkey; and from 13 percent to eight percent among Pakistani Muslims.

For many Muslims, American policies do not differ markedly from one president to the next, and represent the hegemonic designs of a Western superpower, or even a vendetta against Islam. Obama has presided over the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, a plan set in motion by Bush, but a troop surge in Afghanistan and obstacles to a deal between Israel and the Palestinians appear to have undermined outreach to Muslims, embodied in his "new beginning" speech in Cairo last year.

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