Torching U.S. power
The following is guest post by Andrew Hammond, a director at ReputationInc, an international strategic communications firm, was formerly a special adviser to the Home Secretary in the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair and a geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica. The opinions expressed are his own.
The ninth anniversary of September 11 is being overshadowed by the news of Pastor Terry Jones and his now-suspended plan to burn copies of the Koran at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. Even if the bonfire does not take place, the news of it is tragic for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, although President Barack Obama and other US officials have rightly condemned the pastor’s previously intended actions, the episode has exacerbated anti-American sentiment, especially in the Muslim world. This comes at a sensitive period at the end of Ramadan, when debate is also still raging about an Islamic group’s plan to build a community center, which includes a mosque, near Ground Zero in New York City.
It is this latter issue that has apparently enraged Pastor Jones whose backpedaling on the Koran burning only came after he announced an alleged agreement with the community project’s leaders whereby the building would be located further from the World Trade Center site. Although the pastor’s claims of a deal reportedly have been denied by some of those involved in the project the risk remains that he could resume prior plans to hold his “International Burn a Koran Day.”
The re-invigoration of anti-Americanism caused by this episode presents a major political headache for the Obama administration whose public diplomacy has — over the last two years — helped restore US standing across much of the world. But there is still much work that remains. The 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey released in June shows that in nine of 15 countries public favorability toward America lags behind that recorded at the end of the Clinton administration a decade ago.
The Pastor Jones episode is so serious because it further erodes America’s “soft power” — the ability to influence preferences of others derived from the attractiveness of a state’s values, ideals and government policies, especially foreign ones.
History underlines the key role soft power has played as a means of obtaining desirable outcomes. For example, Washington used soft power resources very skillfully after the Second World War to encourage other countries into a system of alliances and institutions, such as NATO, IMF, World Bank, and the United Nations.
Nine years after the September 11 attacks, the challenges posed by the US-led “campaign against terrorism,” as with the Cold War, cannot be met by hard assets alone. This is especially so as the anti-terrorism battle is a contest between Islamic moderates and extremists. The United States and its allies will only secure success if they are able to win moderate Muslim support.
And that is quite an uphill task for America. With the exceptions of Lebanon and Indonesia (where Obama spent part of his childhood), the Pew study in June showed that the populaces of other largely Muslim countries that were surveyed have very negative views of the US.
In Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, just 17% of people have favorable perceptions of America. In the space of just twelve months, US favorability in Egypt has dropped to 17% from 27%.
It is in this context that the significance of the Pastor Jones debacle — a battle for “hearts and minds” — lies with Obama rightly describing it as a potential “recruitment bonanza” for al Qaeda. Leaders in the Muslim world, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, have gone even further, asserting that the act of burning Korans in Florida could cause “irreparable damage to inter-faith harmony and also to world peace.”
For now, following the apparent suspension of the planned Koran burning, worst-case scenarios have been averted. However, this should not disguise the fact that the episode could still prove to be a key setback for the Obama administration’s global public diplomacy and the wider US-led campaign against terrorism.