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U.S. soars in world popularity charts post-Iraq—but will it last?

Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor
Friday, 9 Aug 2013 | 10:57 AM ET
The U.S. and the German flags worn as capes during President Barack Obama's visit to Berlin in June.
Odd Andersen | AFP | Getty Images
The U.S. and the German flags worn as capes during President Barack Obama's visit to Berlin in June.

Favorable global feelings toward the United States have returned to 2002 levels, matching generally warm, pro-American sentiments measured just prior to the Iraq War: 64 percent of the planet's inhabitants tend to like America, according to numbers tabulated for NBC News by the Pew Research Center.

That equates to a 13-point rise in American favorability among the same 19 nations surveyed by Pew in 2007. The Pew team polled people in countries spanning from Pakistan, where only 11 percent of locals today back the United States, to Ghana, where 83 percent of the populace is pro-American, Pew figures show.

But that post-Iraq uptick in international American respect already is believed to be eroding and will ultimately decline, yanked lower by a complex Middle Eastern brew: how the U.S. government has reacted to Arab uprisings and the continuing disarray in Syria and Egypt, plus the U.S. military's wildly unpopular use of drone strikes against suspected Muslim militants, foreign policy experts contend.

In short: America appeared en route to at least reapproaching favorite-child status in the planetary family, but that moment may be slipping away. And the recent wave of U.S. embassy closings and Yemen evacuations—all caused by intercepted electronic communications between two al-Qaeda leaders vowing to do "something big" on Aug. 4—underscored the notion that modern Americans always will live under the shadow of jihadist threats, much like previous U.S. generations came to accept the decades-long reality of Cold War nuclear dangers, experts agree.

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"Much of this has to do with America's role as a superpower and, therefore, people blame you [for the world's ills], no matter what," said Shibley Telhami, a political scientist, professor at the University of Maryland and author of "The World Through Arab Eyes." "Witness the debate in Egypt. Witness the debate in Syria. Both governments and opposition blame the U.S. In some ways. Just because you are powerful and you have presence, influence and [foreign policy] interests there, you're an easy target.

"This comes with the territory of being a superpower," he said. "Even if we do something tomorrow that is for humanitarian reasons, people will say we're doing it to promote somebody or our national interests. If we intervene in Syria tomorrow to prevent atrocities, people will day we're doing it only to dominate Syria."

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But based on the improving U.S. favorability ratings in 23 of the 28 nations surveyed by Pew in 2007 and again 2013, isn't it conceivable that those pro-American attitudes will further bloom and perhaps take deeper root in other lands?

"I personally doubt it," said Telhami, who pins the latest increase in positive-American leanings to the U.S. military's departure from Iraq at the end of 2011.

U.S. Favorability

Fav. '02 Unfav. '02 Fav. '07 Unfav. '07 Fav. '13 Unfav. '13
% % % % % %
Canada 72 27 55 42 64 30
Britain 75 16 51 42 58 30
France 62 34 39 60 64 36
Germany 60 35 30 66 53 40
Italy 70 23 53 38 76 16
Poland 79 11 61 31 67 24
Czech Rep 71 27 45 50 58 33
Russia 61 33 41 48 51 40
Turkey 30 54 9 83 21 70
Jordan 25 75 20 78 14 85
Lebanon 36 59 47 52 47 53
Japan 72 26 61 36 69 29
Pakistan 10 69 15 68 11 72
S.Korea 52 44 58 38 78 20
Argentina 34 49 16 72 41 41
Mexico 64 25 56 41 66 30
Ghana 83 9 80 14 83 9
Kenya 80 15 87 11 81 14
Uganda 74 13 64 19 73 9
Median 64 27 51 42 64 30
Source: Pew Research Center

"Arab perceptions of America are not based on what America is doing today. They are more based on a deep assessment that is decades long, that sees America as a materialist power acting in the Middle East principally for two reasons: to support Israel and control oil," Telhami said.

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Simply scan the Pew survey numbers to see how the massively immersed dislike of U.S. foreign policies in predominantly Muslim nations is dragging down the overall global flavor that other countries hold toward America.

Jordan (14 percent U.S. favorable rating), the Palestinian territories (16 percent) and Egypt (16 percent) all point to a palpable mistrust of the American government. Balancing those ugly ratings are sunny U.S. grades among people living in the Philippines (85 percent favorable), Israel (83 percent), Kenya (81 percent) and Italy (76 percent), Pew found.

"During the [George W.] Bush era, the Iraq War was very unpopular in many parts of the world and that drove down ratings of the U.S.," said Richard Wike, associate director of the Global Attitudes Project at the Pew Research Center. "President [Barack] Obama, for the most part, his policies have been viewed more favorably in many parts of the world. That's helped American image.

"But since he came into office, President Obama's numbers have slipped a little bit and many countries' ratings for the U.S. are down [again], though they're still more positive than during the final years of the Bush Administration in 2007 and 2008," Wike added.

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Some of America's most potent attractions abroad are its "soft powers," Wike said, listing a global admiration for U.S. science and technology, pop culture and "the American ways of doing business."

On the opposite side of the scale: the American military's use of drones. Pew's 2013 survey showed that in 39 nations it surveyed, the majority of residents in only three nations (the United States, Israel and Kenya) favored the weapon as a tactical tool. Affability ratings on drones bottom out in countries like the Palestinian territories (3 percent back their use), Jordan (4 percent) and Pakistan (5 percent).

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"There is no doubt that President Obama immediately improved America's standing in most of Europe compared with President Bush and that effect continues," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative and director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.

"He also temporarily increased it quite a bit in the broader Islamic world, but most of that boost has since dissipated—and that falloff in popularity in the broader Middle East/Islamic world is alas quite striking."

—By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor

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