American and Muslim Voices: Both Seek Common Ground on U.S. Foreign Policy

In the latest Washington Post/ABC poll respondents by 16 points favored McCain over Obama in knowledge about world affairs. In an effort to overcome such perceptions Obama will undertake a major international trip later this month. While details of the trip remain vague, it is the expected that Obama, in addition to visiting our traditional allies in Europe will also visit Muslim countries like Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama is also expected to give a major speech in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. After seven years of Bush unilateralism, mending fences with Europe is desirable and understandable. However, the European challenge pales in front of the continued worsening of our relationship with the Muslim world. American troops are engaged in two wars in the Muslim nations of Iraq and Afghanistan and are perhaps poised to invade a third, Iran.

Moreover, ill-advised rhetoric from the Presidential candidates, continue to add fuel to the fire. McCain singing “bomb Iran” and “joking” about exporting American cigarettes to kill Iranians or Obama supporting an “undivided Jerusalem” (which he later backtracked on) and “willing to attack inside Pakistan” are hardening perceptions about America’s intent in the Muslim world.

Earlier last year, Steven Kull, editor of testifying before House Committee on Foreign Affairs said, "For decades, polls in the Muslim world and the statements of Muslim leaders have shown a variety of resentments about US policies. Muslims share the worldwide view that the US does not live up to its own ideals of international law and democracy. … These attitudes persist. But now there … now seems to be a perception that the US has entered into a war against Islam itself.” No more than 5 to 10 percent of people living in Muslim majority countries find the United States to be trustworthy, friendly or respectful. Even those Muslims who aspire to better relations with the West remain skeptical of the United States (in “Who Speaks for Islam?” by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed).

Dotting these ominous clouds are many silver linings promising hope.

A recent Gallup poll, chronicled in Esposito and Mogahed’s book, shows that nearly 9 in 10 Muslims support freedom of speech, defined as allowing all citizens to express their opinions freely on all major issues of the day. Overwhelming majorities support women having the same legal rights as men. Similar numbers hold beliefs that their faith ought to inform and guide them in their politics. Yet most do not want sacred religious texts to be the exclusive source of law in their societies.

The most common aspiration, all across the Muslim world, is to see America help in reducing unemployment, improving economic infrastructure, respecting political rights and promoting freedom.

Back at home, in a poll conducted by the non-partisan group Public Agenda, overall anxiety about foreign policy remains high. Clear majority of American’s support diplomatic and economic means to resolve conflicts. Nearly half favor the use of such methods to deal with Iran. Most respondents want America’s top foreign policy priorities to be humanitarian, such as assisting with clean water supplies, helping poor countries move out of poverty, providing more access to education or controlling the spread of deadly diseases.

Such convergence of aspiration creates new opportunities for cooperation through sustained intellectual and diplomatic engagement. To his credit, Obama in a July 15 interview with CNN’s Larry King spoke about the need to engage with Pakistan’s newly elected government. He went on to say, “what we need to do is to form an alliance with the Pakistani people, saying that we’re willing to significantly increase aid for humanitarian purposes, for schools, for hospitals, for health care. We want to support democratic efforts in Pakistan.”

In addition, increasing student and scholar exchange programs, spending on anti-poverty programs, opening new opportunities for businesses will do more to help America’s security and image than putting more boots on the ground. It is time to break our foreign policy from the grips of special interest groups whose ideological bent have dragged us into unnecessary wars fueling dangerous perceptions about America’s neo-imperialistic intentions.