Arabs: It’s the Policy, Stupid

If U.S. President George W. Bush thinks his “war on terror” is winning Arab hearts and minds, he should think about conducting it much differently than he has over the past two years…

Beginning with changing his policies.

That is the unavoidable conclusion of the latest two in a series of major surveys of public opinion in five Arab countries – all U.S. allies in the “war on terror” – released here Friday by the University of Maryland (UMD), the Arab American Institute (AAI) and Zogby International.

“Favorable attitudes toward America have dropped precipitously over the past two years,” said AAI Executive Director James Zogby, summing up the results.

In contrast to the Bush administration’s insistence that U.S. “values” and political ideals are behind the hostility, the findings also show that the Arab populations of Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) see U.S. policies in the Middle East as by far the main factor in fostering the Arab world’s growing antagonism toward Washington.

“It’s the policy, stupid,” said Zogby, who added that when asked an open-ended question about what the United States could do to improve its image among Arabs, significant pluralities in each country called for Washington to either “stop supporting Israel” or “change Middle East policy.”

Attitudes toward the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq were also almost uniformly negative.

“What you have is a collapse of trust in U.S. intentions,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at UMD, who is also a fellow at the Brooking Institution. He suggested that confidence in the Arab world toward Washington has plunged so deeply that even if Bush loses the elections in November, any new administration will have a very difficult time regaining trust.

Both surveys, which were designed to be representative of the different ethnic and religious groups in each of the countries polled, were conducted in May in major cities. Some 3,000 respondents were personally interviewed by questioners of the same gender.

The AAI survey, the sixth on Arab “impressions of America,” covered general attitudes toward the United States and how they are formed, while the UMD survey dealt with Arab attitudes towards political and social issues, foreign policy and the media.

The AAI survey found that the number of people who rated the U.S. “favorably” – already very low two years ago in the aftermath of the military campaign in Afghanistan – has since fallen into the cellar.

Declines were most significant in Morocco (from 38 percent favorable to 11 percent), Jordan (from 34 to 15 percent) and Egypt (from 15 to two percent). Even in Saudi Arabia, where 12 percent in 2002 said they had a favorable opinion of the United States overall, the percentage that still believes that has dropped to four.

Testing the Bush administration’s contention that anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world is based on hostility to U.S. values and “who we are,” the poll found evidence that while Arabs were less positive about U.S. values, products, culture and people than two years ago, they were far more antagonistic toward specific policies.

While the percentage of respondents in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and UAE who said they felt favorably about U.S. science and technology, freedom and democracy, people and movies and television, hovered between a low of around one-third to highs of about two-thirds, only four percent of the same respondents said they had a favorable view of U.S. policy toward Arabs and Palestinians.

Asked an open-ended question about what they first think when they hear “America,” pluralities of respondents in every country, except Lebanon and Jordan, volunteered “unfair foreign policy,” while a plurality in Jordan cited “imperialism.” The ratio of negative to positive responses, according to Zogby, was three to one in Lebanon and Egypt, four to one in Morocco, Jordan and the UAE, and 15 to one in Saudi Arabia.

Asked to volunteer “the worst thing” they think about with respect to the United States, 80 percent of the responses involved foreign policy issues. The two answers that were given most frequently were “unfair Middle East policy” and “murdering Arabs.” The latter was the most frequently heard response in Morocco and Jordan.

The UMD survey, which dealt more specifically with the impact of the Iraq war, also painted a dismal picture for U.S. policy makers

Asked whether the recent transfer of sovereignty to Iraq will bring positive change, more chaos or no real change at all, majorities in each country (except Egypt, which was not polled in the UMD survey) opted for the last, while about one in four respondents in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia chose chaos.

More than four out of five respondents said they considered the Iraqi people to be “worse off” than before the war.

More worrisome, large majorities, ranging from 64 percent in Lebanon to 90 percent in Saudi Arabia, said they believed the war would result in more terrorism against the United States, while slightly smaller majorities, ranging from 57 percent in Lebanon to 82 percent in Morocco, said the war had brought “less democracy” to the region. In no country did more than seven percent say they felt the war would bring “more democracy.”

Asked to rank five as the most likely of eight possible U.S. motives for the war, the UMD survey showed strongly negative views across the board.

Majorities ranging between 61 percent (Jordan) and 88 percent (Morocco) in every country except, ironically, Saudi Arabia (45 percent) named “controlling oil” as one of the top motivations, along with “protecting Israel,” an option that attracted from 44 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia to 82 percent of respondents in both Morocco and Lebanon. Next highest motive – chosen by about two-thirds of all respondents – was “weakening” or “dominating” the Muslim world.

As for the more positive options presented – ensuring peace and stability, bringing democracy, preventing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and ending Iraqi oppression – none was rated as one of the five major motivations by a majority of all respondents, while “bringing democracy” received the lowest scores in each of the five countries surveyed.

Lebanese respondents, 59 percent of whom rated “preventing WMD” as one of the top five motives, opted significantly more often for positive motives than respondents in each of the other countries, while the greatest cynicism was expressed by respondents in the UAE.

Asked about their own sense of identity, pluralities in Jordan and Morocco and majorities in Saudi Arabia and UAE identified themselves primarily as Muslim, as opposed to a citizen of their country, an “Arab,” or a “citizen of the world.”

Telhami said the result showed a marked rise in Muslim consciousness compared to previous surveys, and suggested that it may be evidence of a “backlash” against U.S. foreign policy, which is seen increasingly as directed “against Muslims.”

Asked to name the world leader they most admired outside of their own country, the late Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser was mentioned most frequently in the five countries combined and particularly in Saudi Arabia, where 46 percent of respondents gave his name.

Next most mentioned was French President Jacques Chirac, who was named by one of every four Lebanese. Deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was nominated by 21 percent of Jordanians, but only one percent of Saudis and four percent of Lebanese.

Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, did best in the UAE, where 18 percent of respondents named him, as did seven percent of respondents in both Jordan and Morocco. (As a Saudi, bin Laden was not an acceptable choice for Saudi respondents.)

The unifying factor behind all of these choices, noted Telhami, is the fact that they are “people who are seen to have defied the United States of America.”

For least admired world leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon swept the board in each country – with between 61 percent and 64 percent of respondents in each country, except Saudi Arabia (49 percent) volunteering his name.

Bush was the next most frequently mentioned – from 19 percent in UAE to 39 percent in Saudi Arabia.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.