The dramatic news about Osama bin Laden’s death, especially when taken in combination with the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’, offers a remarkable window of opportunity for U.S. policy-makers seeking to encourage what President Obama has called an “alternative narrative” for a disaffected generation in the Islamic world.
For years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, military and counter-terrorism efforts dominated the U.S. global response to the atrocities in New York City and Washington, DC. Major successes were achieved, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, the overwhelming U.S. emphasis on ‘hard power’ has fuelled controversy, and ultimately U.S. unpopularity, across much of the world in the subsequent decade.
Accordingly to the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, in 9 of 15 countries for which relevant time series data is available, public favourability toward the United States in 2010 lagged behind that recorded at the end of the Clinton administration. This phenomenon, which developed most intensely during the administration of George W. Bush, comes despite the decline of anti-Americanism across much of the world since the election of Obama in 2008.
As the Pew data indicates, nowhere has U.S. unpopularity been more evident than in the Islamic world. While countries such as Lebanon buck the trend, the general fall-off in the last decade is stark. In Turkey, for instance, favourability of the domestic population towards the United States has fallen from some 30 percent in 2002 to a low 17 percent in 2010. Equally, in Egypt, favourability has declined from 30 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2010.
The decline in these numbers is so serious because of the concomitant erosion of U.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 in world politics.
For example, Washington used soft power resources skilfully 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. The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy of containment and cultural vigour which combined both soft and hard power.
Almost ten years after the September 11 attacks, the challenges posed by the U.S.-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 whose outcome is related, in significant part, to a battle between moderates and extremists within Islamic civilisation. Despite bin Laden’s death, the United States and its allies will only secure greater success in meeting their goals if they demonstrate a capacity to win moderate Muslim support.
It is in this context of a battle for ‘hearts and minds’ that the significance of the Arab Spring lies. It remains unclear whether forces of freedom and democracy will ultimately consolidate their initial influence; or whether extremist groups (including al-Qaida) might profiteer from the vacuum of power. Here bin Laden’s death will, at least in the short-term, demoralise some al-Qaida operatives at the same time that the network’s ideology is challenged by the largely peaceful and non-religious agenda of the remarkable events that have unfolded in North Africa and the Middle East in recent months.
Especially now that bin Laden is dead, one of the shrewdest moves that the Obama administration could make is re-launching the campaign against terrorism, potentially also prompting the “new beginning” in ties with the Islamic world which the president promised in his Cairo speech in June 2009. At a minimum, this would necessitate kick-starting the machinery of U.S. public diplomacy to “re-energise the [U.S.] dialogue with the Muslim world” that Obama has also pledged.
In such a scenario, of course, U.S. policy would continue to include a significant element of military and counter-terrorism power. However, (barring a new spectacular attack on the U.S. homeland) this could now be at least partially de-emphasised, including through Obama’s planned drawdown of troops in Afghanistan from 2011-14.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate Partner at ReputationInc. He was formerly a Special Adviser in the Government of Tony Blair, and a Geopolitics Consultant at Oxford Analytica. The opinions expressed are his own.