Hearts and minds

HEARTS AND MINDS…. It’s hardly a secret that the nation’s stature and reputation took a serious hit between 2002 and 2008, especially in the Middle East. A new McClatchy/Ipsos Poll shows that while suspicions about the U.S. remain deep in the region, President Obama’s outreach to Middle Eastern countries appears to be having an effect.

The poll of six Arab nations found that residents think that Obama will have a positive impact on the Middle East — a region marked by war, religious disputes, ethnic and sectarian violence — as well as on the United States and the rest of the world.

Obama scored highest in Jordan, where 58 percent of its citizens have a favorable opinion of him, 29 percent have an unfavorable view, 6 percent had no opinion and 7 percent didn’t know.

Saudi Arabians have a 53 percent favorable opinion of Obama, followed by 52 percent in the United Arab Emirates. From there, Obama’s popularity dips below 50 percent with a 47 percent favorability rating in Kuwait, 43 percent in Lebanon and 35 percent in Egypt. In none of these countries, however, was Obama’s unfavorable rating higher than his favorable one.

In contrast, only 38 percent of Saudis have a favorable view of the United States, followed by 36 percent of Jordanians, 34 percent of UAE residents, 31 percent of Lebanese and 22 percent of Egyptians.

The difference between Obama’s popularity and that of the United States is a goodwill gap that spreads from 26 points in Kuwait to 11 points in Lebanon, all in Obama’s favor.

That’s somewhat discouraging, since it’s preferable to see Middle Easterners have as a high opinion of the United States as they do of our president, but it also offers Obama an opportunity. As an Ipsos analysis noted, Obama is in a position “to literally ‘bridge the gap’ where his repository of goodwill lifts the goodwill towards America.”

The next step, of course, is follow through. His favorability numbers extend some leeway to the president — it’s a foot in the door, suggesting the region is at least willing to hear him out. Ending the war in Iraq, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and playing an active role in the Israeli peace process will bolster those impressions, and obviously improve the nation’s standing in the region.

Also, the results of the poll have to be discouraging for al Qaeda, which has worked to convince Middle Easterners that Obama is not trustworthy. It’s not working. And as Richard Clarke explained in October, the last thing al Qaeda wants is a popular U.S. president who enjoys respect and support on the world stage.