Arab Public Opinion Toward U.S. Sours Despite Obama's Outreach

Tuesday, 17 Aug 2010 05:43 PM

By Herbert London

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In a recent 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll conducted by Zogby International and the University of Maryland for the Brookings Institution one can get a glimpse of Arab opinion in the so-called moderate countries of Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Included in the findings are the following points:
  • Arab views hopeful about the Obama administration policy in the Middle East declined from 51 to 16 percent between 2009 and 2010, while those discouraged rose from 15 to 63 percent.
  • Those thinking Israel is a huge threat is at 88 percent (down slightly from 95 percent in 2008).
  • The idea that the United States is the main threat to Arab countries and societies declined from 88 percent under President George W. Bush to 77 percent under President Obama.
  •  The Iranian threat grew from 7 percent in 2008 to 13 percent in 2009 and down to 10 percent in 2010.
  • Asked which foreign leader is most admired, almost 70 percent name an Islamist or a supporter of extremist forces. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan received endorsement from 20 percent, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez 13 percent, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 12 percent, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah 9 percent, Syrian President Bahar al-Assad 7 percent and Osama bin Laden 6 percent.
Several conclusions emerge from this very interesting poll.

First and foremost is the obvious conclusion that the adjective "moderate" hasn’t any place in the Middle East where one man’s moderate is another man’s radical. The assumption that President Obama’s Cairo speech changed attitudes in the Arab world is certainly not borne out by the polling data.

Second, whatever change in tilt the present administration has given to the Israeli-Palestinian question, negative attitudes to Israel persist and it is unlikely this will change substantially as long as Israel exists.

Third, despite the rhetorical shift in Middle East policy reflected in President Obama’s attitude and gestures, there is relatively little change in Arab attitude between Obama and Bush. Considering the hoopla given to policy shifts, it is remarkable that the Arab man on the street retains essentially the same position toward the Unites States that he held two years ago.

Fourth, despite the imperial aims of Iran and its threats against Sunni-dominated states, Arabs believe that the U.S. is a greater threat to their societies by a factor of 10.

Fifth, it is remarkable that not one moderate leader in the Arab world, alas even in the non-Arab world, makes the list of most admired figures.

What this adds up to is an Arabic-speaking community where radicalism is ensconced; where despite foreign aid, diplomatic appeasement, and attempts at cultural understanding, a passionate hatred of Israel and the West is unflagging. Judging from the data, conditions aren’t improving. There is a lack of sympathy for democracy and liberalism and growing traction for Islamism even when compared to Arab nationalism.

As a consequence, policy implications are apparent. The effort to appease, flatter and buy off has not worked. The notion that Obama represents a new chapter in Middle East history is regarded as mythology. And perhaps the most useless expression in the English language is “Middle East Peace Process.” There cannot be a peace as long as Israel is regarded as a greater threat than Iran.

Apologies should be replaced by assertiveness. As long as the U.S. is regarded as “the weak horse” unwilling to restrain the advance of radical sentiments, American interests in the region will be imperiled. It is only when the radicals realize their revolutionary goals cannot be successful that transformation, or something approaching it, will be possible.

It is sometimes suggested that there is a huge divide between the realities in the Middle East such as poverty, hatred, adventurism, internal competition, and the fantasies such as the ultimate disappearance of Israel. And there is no doubt this divide exists and influences public opinion.

But there is an even greater divide right here in Foggy Bottom, between the fantasists who contend that all we have to do is have the Israelis make greater concessions to the Palestinians and Middle East peace will flourish, and the realists, recognizing the intractability of Arab beliefs, who tell us that all the appeasement arabesques in the world are not likely to alter Arab attitudes to any appreciable degree.


Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and the author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction).

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