A new Zogby International poll of Arab opinions showing that views toward the U.S. have dropped since 2008 is obviously disappointing for those of us who had hopes for President Obama’s efforts in the region. Importantly, it gets at the stark divide between President Obama’s words and actions. He’s said a lot of great things about changing the U.S. approach to the region, but hasn’t followed through with much in the way of developing a coherent new policy. He’s put in a significant effort on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but hasn’t produced much. And people in the Arab world aren’t giving him points for trying.
Some of the main findings:
- After improving with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, U.S. favorable ratings across the Arab world have plummeted. In most countries they are lower than at the end of the Bush Administration, and lower than Iran’s favorable ratings (except in Saudi Arabia).
- The continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and U.S. interference in the Arab world are held to be the greatest obstacles to peace and stability in the Middle East.
- While many Arabs were hopeful that the election of Barack Obama would improve U.S.-Arab relations, that hope has evaporated. Today, President Obama’s favorable ratings across the Arab world are 10% or less.
- Obama’s performance ratings are lowest on the two issues to which he has devoted the most energy: Palestine and engagement with the Muslim world.
- The U.S. role in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya receives a positive rating only in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but, as an issue, it is the lowest priority.
- The killing of bin Laden only worsened attitudes toward the U.S.
- A plurality says it is too early to tell whether the Arab Spring will have a positive impact on the region. In Egypt, the mood is mixed. Only in the Gulf States are optimism and satisfaction levels high.
It’s important to understand these numbers in the context of the last decade of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. While Arab publics have expressed negative views of U.S. policy for decades, Arab opinion of the U.S. fell dramatically after the invasion and occupation of Iraqas the Washington Post noted in 2004:
In Zogby’s 2002 survey, 76 percent of Egyptians had a negative attitude toward the United States, compared with 98 percent this year . In Morocco, 61 percent viewed the country unfavorably in 2002, but in two years, that number has jumped to 88 percent. In Saudi Arabia, such responses rose from 87 percent in 2002 to 94 percent in June. Attitudes were virtually unchanged in Lebanon but improved slightly in the UAE, from 87 percent who said in 2002 that they disliked the United States to 73 percent this year. Those polled said their opinions were shaped by U.S. policies, rather than by values or culture.
When asked: "What is the first thought when you hear ‘America’?" respondents overwhelmingly said: "Unfair foreign policy."
While many Arabs were willing to give Obama a chance to change the U.S. orientation, they now seem to have given up. To many in the region, unfortunately, "America is not the city on the hill. We’re Iraq. we’re Abu Ghraib, we’re Guantanamo," said the Arab American Institute’s John Zogby, who commissioned the poll. Obama’s backing protesters in Tunisia and Egypt and establishing a no-fly zone in Libya haven’t done anything to arrest the trend, something that Zogby says shouldn’t be all that surprising. "When your neighbor’s been fooling around with your wife for years, you don’t suddenly change your mind about him when he takes out your garbage and trims your hedges," Zogby remarked Tuesday at a meeting with reporters.
In regard to the absence of anti-Americanism in the demonstrations that brought down Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Zogby observed, "They’re not burning American flags in Cairo, but they’re not waving them either." A consistent theme in the responses was a desire for less U.S. intervention in Arab affairs.
As for those who claim vindication for the more aggressive policies of the Bush administration, Zogby noted, "When America was ’strongest’ in the region  the numbers were at their lowest."
Zogby also stressed that the numbers show that Arabs continue to rank the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands as one of the greatest obstacles to peace and stability in the region. Whether or not one agrees with that view, it is a political fact in the region. Contrary to the claims of some, then, as countries in the region (hopefully) move toward more democratic government, we should expect the Palestinian issue to become more prominent, not less. Indeed, we’ve already seen a demonstration of this on the debate over Tunisia’s new constitution.