Analysis by Sr. State Dept Producer Elise Labott and Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty
Support for Islamic extremism has seen a very significant decline since the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. By the time Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals in May, he and his al Qaeda network had been largely discredited in the Arab and Muslim world.
But with a few exceptions, the Muslim world's image of the United States is still pretty awful.
How did we end up here - not much better than we were before 9/11?
In the days and weeks following the 9/11 attacks, the world stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States as it mourned its losses, buried its dead and grappled with the largest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.
In those early days, nearly every country around the world pledged to work with the United States to fight terrorism. Quickly, Washington led an unprecedented coming together of nations, to prevent another attack by sharing intelligence, tightening airline security and cooperating on law enforcement.
But that goodwill was quickly squandered.
Even before the first anniversary of the attacks, the image of the United States around the world began to plummet, with talk about the invasion of Iraq. While U.S. allies were disappointed that the United States went into Iraq without their approval, polls show the Muslim world saw something completely different: that the U.S.-led war on terrorism was really a war against Islam.
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center notes that even in Muslim countries where the United States was well-regarded, such as Turkey and Indonesia, the positive view of America fell significantly.
Evidence of detainee abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, coupled with U.S. polices involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, furthered the perception that the United States was at war with Islam - despite extensive public diplomacy campaigns by the State Department to portray America as a country where Muslims were not only free to worship, but were part of the American social fabric.
Jim Zogby of the Arab American Institute coined a phrase which became a popular refrain among Arabs and Muslims about the negative U.S. image in the region: "It's the policies, stupid."
The election of Barack Obama had the opportunity to re-write the U.S. narrative. Not only did Obama earn points for simply not being George Bush, but Arabs and Muslims had the perception that Obama would be a different kind of president, one who would deal with issues important to them. For the rest of the world, President Obama's promise of engagement and multilateralism brought back the feelings of goodwill absent during the Bush years. Even before Obama took office, Pew's polls showed that the number of people who had a favorable view of the United States went up significantly.
Obama furthered this goodwill when, two days after his inauguration, he appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy for Mideast peace and promised to make resolving the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a key issue for Arabs and Muslims - a priority for his administration. He followed that up with a speech in Cairo in 2009, promising deeper engagement and better relations with the Arab and Muslim world based on mutual interests and respect. He even stretched out his hand to Iran, offering a chance at a better relationship.
Two weeks after the Cairo speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Farah Pandith as an envoy in charge of outreach to Muslims. Focusing on grassroots engagement and youth, Pandith set out to create stronger ties through dialogue, cooperation and partnerships in education, science and technology and entrepreneurship.
But despite the change in tone, Obama was not seen in the region as being able to deliver on the tantalizing promises he made in Cairo. Dashed hopes and expectations led to skepticism and a view that Obama wasn't all that different after all. While Obama is held in a higher regard than President George W. Bush in countries like Jordan and Egypt, neither he, nor the United States, is well-regarded in the Arab and Muslim world. The one exception is Indonesia, where President Obama spent time as a young boy. The sea change in attitudes toward the United States in the region is still out of grasp.
Had Obama handled the revolutions that rocked Tunisia and Egypt differently, he might have gotten a boost from the Arab spring. Clearly, this period shows the vast majority of the region chose democratic values over the extremist ideology popular in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the invasion of Iraq. Yet the United States wasn't considered much of a player in the change enveloping the region.
Similarly, the killing of bin Laden did not improve the image of the United States, especially in Pakistan, where Washington has been engaged in an intensive hearts-and-minds campaign to the tune of $1.5 billion. Rather it was the Muslim public's personal experience with extremism that formed its view of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In the end, as Jim Zogby so eloquently put it, it all goes back to the policies. Pew's Andrew Kohut agrees. Public diplomacy, financial aid and speeches may help put a nice gloss on U.S. policies, he said. But how the United States conducts itself in the Arab and Muslim world will do the most to shape the U.S. image in the region.