WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Foreign aid could be a vital tool in the struggle to win over hearts and minds throughout the Muslim world, according to new polling data.
During the past six months, Terror Free Tomorrow has administered polls in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan -- the world's three most populous Muslim countries -- in which at least half of all respondents replied that American aid "makes them more favorable to the U.S."
"The bottom line is that American aid is the single most important action the people of the three largest Muslim countries want from the United States," writes Ken Ballen, TFT president, in the report's executive summary. "And here's the key to winning hearts and minds: deeper American assistance directly to the people, following their expressed priorities."
Terror Free Tomorrow is a non-partisan, non-profit organization, whose mission includes understanding the popular support behind global terrorists. Its advisory board includes Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
At a press conference publicizing the report, Ballen argued against the media-fueled misconception that "the U.S. is public enemy number one" in the Islamic world. Ballen used TFT's polling data to suggest the majority of Muslims throughout the Middle East and Asia don't dislike the United States, but "do not have a recognized voice" through which they can express their views.
However, in order to change the opinions of those sections of the Islamic world where anti-American sentiment runs deep, Ballen argued increased U.S. aid can play a remedial role. "We should reach out more forcefully to deliver aid directly to the Islamic world" in order to further swing public opinion behind U.S. policy, he said.
While TFT's report emphasizes the positive role of foreign aid, it also recognizes the significant negative impact that the war on terror has had on Muslim public opinion. "The same consensus view on the approval of American aid is mirrored by an equally strong unfavorable view of the anti-Muslim character of the U.S.-led fight against terrorism," the report states.
Ballen emphasized that simply piping money into Islamic countries is not enough. Equally important as the quantity of aid is the way in which aid is administered. "Aid is important, but interaction between Americans and Muslims and people-to-people contact is perhaps more important," he said.
To illustrate his point, Ballen cited the example of Egypt, which was the second-largest recipient of official U.S. aid in 2004. Despite the nearly $43 billion which Egypt received from the United States, Egyptians generally remain highly anti-American. Ballen argued the situation in Egypt could be changed if American diplomats made a concerted effort to establish their presence on the Egyptian street by getting out from behind the fortified walls of the embassy. Although this strategy could potentially put the security of American diplomats at risk, Ballen argued that without such efforts the impact of American aid is nullified.
Others, however, argue that TFT's suggestions regarding aid are superficial to the deeper issues which are affecting Muslim opinion of the United States.
Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, told United Press International that American policy must be fundametally altered in order to affect a serious change in Muslim public opinion.
"You can't really buy favorable public opinion," Cohen said. "Frankly, I think a change in U.S. policies would be more beneficial -- changed policies towards Iraq, global terrorism, the Middle East, detainee treatment, and a more sustained effort to get an Israeli-Palestinian settlement."
Cohen also warned that the goal of foreign aid should not be politicized. "If the purpose of aid is really to elevate the economic situation for developing countries, then that should be an end in itself," she said.
Cohen stressed she is not opposed to increasing aid, but suggested that a more far-sighted approach to development in the Muslim world would emphasize strengthening trade rather than simply handing out increased levels of aid.