Published on Wednesday, July 28, 2004 by

Is that laughter I hear echoing from the mountains of Baluchistan?

The latest survey results out of the Middle East show that America’s favorability rating is now, essentially, zero. That’s down from as high as 75 percent in some Muslim countries just four years ago.

Two new polls of attitudes in six Arab countries by Zogby International make for pretty grim reading to us, but they’re manna from Heaven for the man who, news reports claim, is now believed to be holed up in the semi-autonomous region of Northwest Pakistan.

It was bad enough in 2002, when Zogby found that an appalling 35 percent of Jordanians and 12 percent of Saudis viewed us favorably. Now those figures are 15 percent and four percent respectively. We can’t even buy friends. Egypt received some $4 billion last year in U.S. aid, yet only two percent of Egyptians responded positively. In a poll with a margin of error of about four points, that doesn’t even move the needle.

Arab attitudes toward pretty much all things American are in the toilet, including American freedom and democracy – something even al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay once told interrogators that they admired. Asked to name the “best thing about America” now, most Arabs responded, “nothing.” The worst things about America? “Unfair Middle East policy” and our penchant to “murder Arabs.”

If, four years ago, the Bush administration had consciously set out to create the “clash of civilizations” sought by bin Laden, it is hard to believe it could have been more successful.

‘I believe that sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia,” the al-Qaeda leader predicted in a 1996 interview with The Independent of London, referring to what had been his prime demand since the first Gulf War. “Resistance against America will spread in many, many places in Muslim countries.”

The U.S. quietly withdrew its troops from Saudi Arabia the week we invaded Iraq, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy. The new Zogby figures – and the parade of carnage on the front page each day – are vivid evidence the rest has come true as well.

There is speculation that al-Qaeda might mount an operation this autumn to disrupt the U.S. elections. My bet is that bin Laden is closely watching the polls before giving the go-ahead. I mean, if it looks like Bush might be re-elected, why would he mess with a good thing?

“Even as we have thwarted attacks, nearly everyone expects [more] will come. How can this be?” asked the 9/11 Commission in its final report, released last week two days after Saudi officials found the severed head of an American hostage in a freezer.

At the root of this tragedy is the unwillingness – or inability – of the Bush administration to understand either the terrorist enemy or our would-be allies among the world’s Muslims. Instead, from day one, we heard a series of false assumptions and simplistic clich�s about radical Islamist terrorism that set us up to lose the support of the vast majority of Muslims who condemned the 9/11 bombings but shared an antipathy for the U.S. foreign policy that motivated them.

“Why do they hate us?” the president asked in his address to the nation on Sept. 11, 2001. “They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

It was an effective soundbite, but it wasn’t true. “There appears to be no empirical evidence to support the claim that Arabs have a negative view of the U.S. because ‘they hate American values,'” the Zogby survey concluded. Interviews with members of suicide cells and surveys of opinion in the Middle East have consistently shown that both the terrorists and Arab and non-Arab Muslims as a whole generally admire American ‘values’ like democracy, a free press, free speech, and universal human rights. What they hate is our support for authoritarian regimes that deny them those rights. Ignoring those grievances was to ignore the “hearts and minds” so vital to defeating terrorism. An overwhelming majority in the Zogby poll expect the U.S. invasion of Iraq to result in less democracy in the Middle East and say it was motivated by U.S. goals of “controlling oil,” “protecting Israel” and “weakening” or “dominating” the Muslim world.

The president has also told us that fighting poverty and poor education is “the answer to terror.” That, too, is a simplistic take on reality. Several studies of suicide bombers and the members of suicide cells have shown they come from higher socio-economic groups and are better educated than the populations from which they are drawn. Likewise, their supporters.

Nor are most terrorists “fanatics” – religious or otherwise. “They are really quite normal psychologically,” Jerrold Post, the man who created the CIA’s psychological profiling unit, recently told The New York Times. Research in Israel, home to the majority of the world’s suicide bombings until Iraq came along, finds that most suicide bombers have suffered from violence against themselves or their families. It also shows that when prospects for increased political rights rise, terrorism falls. Likewise, violence begets violence, as the U.S. is learning in Iraq, where some 40 suicide bombers have killed 800 people so far this year.

The issue was not whether bin Laden posed a dangerous threat, which he demonstrably did; but a question of whether, if it had framed the war on terror differently, acknowledging the root causes – the denial of political and human rights – and taking peaceful steps toward addressing them, the United States might have preserved the well-spring of goodwill that existed among the majority of the world’s Muslims in the days after 9/11, rather than creating precisely the climate of fear and alienation that bin Laden sought to foment.

A frozen head in a Saudi freezer; terrorism has become an art-form with the White House as its wealthy patron.

By Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar. He is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University (2009-2016). He was named a Fellow of the Society by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for "outstanding service to the profession of journalism" around the world. Pintak is a contributor to, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Read his articles at His books include Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & The War of Ideas; Islam for Journalists (co-editor); The New Arab Journalist; and Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Follow him on Twitter @LPintak.

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