The latest methodologically serious poll of Arab public opinion—the “Arab Attitudes, 2011” survey, see here, conducted by IBOPE Zogby International for the Arab American Institute Foundation—should (but probably won’t) be read in the White House as a wake-up call about how badly the United States, under President Obama’s leadership, is doing in the Middle East. More particularly, the poll—conducted in six Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates)—reveals at least three important things about current perspectives on the “Arab street”:
–First, the poll makes clear that, after briefly improving following Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, America’s favorability ratings “across the Arab world have plummeted”. One striking example: America’s favorability rating in Egypt is now five percent, down from 30 percent in 2009 and nine percent in 2008, as George W. Bush’s presidency was drawing to a close. Indeed, in most of the countries surveyed (Saudi Arabia was an exception), U.S. favorability ratings today are lower than they were at the end of the George W. Bush Administration’s tenure. That’s not a new finding; the 2010 running of the University of Maryland’s Arab Public Opinion survey, see here, produced a similar result. But the new Zogby poll confirms the trend.
–Second, whatever “hope” Arabs may have felt that Obama’s election would produce better U.S. policy in the Middle East “has evaporated”. In current Arab perceptions, “U.S. interference in the Arab world” runs neck and neck with “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands” as the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. In most Arab countries, Obama’s own favorability ratings are now lower than George W. Bush’s at the end of his presidency.
–Third, Arab publics (as opposed to elites) are still not buying the argument pushed by the United States and by many of their own governments that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a major threat to Arab interests. Among the items suggested by the pollsters, “Iran’s interference in Arab affairs” came in last, by significant margins, as problems which respondents identified as significant obstacles to peace and stability in the Middle East; only in Saudi Arabia did a high percentage of respondents identify Iranian “interference” as a major security concern. This, too, is consistent with the findings of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Survey.
Furthermore, except in Saudi Arabia, more respondents in the 2011 Zogby poll agreed with the statement “Iran contributes to peace and stability in the Arab world” than with the statement “The United States contributes to peace and stability in the Arab world”. In several countries, the difference in perceptions of Iran and the United States as positive forces was sizable (e.g., in Lebanon, where 57 percent see Iran as a positive influence, compared to 16 percent who see America that way, or in Egypt, where 32 percent see Iran as a positive influence, compared to 10 percent who view America in those terms). The Press TV report on the new Zogby poll, see here, also mentions that, according to a poll conducted in June, 45 percent of Germans believe that the United States is a more serious threat to world peace than the Islamic Republic, while only 25 percent of Germans believe that Iran is a bigger threat to peace.
We can imagine the response to all of this in the White House: “But President Obama has reached out to the Muslim world. He gave the Cairo speech. He held an iftar at the White House. He went to war in Libya to show that he really had been rooting for the crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo all along. What are we supposed to do?”
But the new Zogby clearly indicates what other polls and ongoing contact with people who live in the Middle East reveal: “public diplomacy”—or however else one wants to describe U.S. efforts to persuade Middle Eastern publics to support initiatives and positions that hurt their interests and offend their values—does not work. The key to strategic success in the Middle East, for the United States or any other country, is good policy, grounded in a sober appreciation of regional realities.
On this point, the Zogby poll suggests that the most popular country in the Middle East, right now, is Turkey, under Prime Minister Erdoğan’s AKP government. Turkey—a country that, while maintaining its NATO membership, calls Israel to account for its continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, declines to side with the United States when it judges that U.S. policy on particular issues is going in counter-productive directions, and has forged an important strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Might there be some lessons for the United States in that?
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett