Public opinion surveys conducted in several Arab countries over the past five years have found that while Arabs seem to favor American values, culture and products, they are deeply disappointed with U.S policies.
"If you look at science and technology it gets over 70 percent favorable rating; American freedom and democracy gets over 50 percent rating; American movies get 50 to 60 percent. Actually we got higher numbers on most of these areas than we did in France," says James Zogby, senior analyst at Zogby International. The U.S. polling firm recently conducted surveys of attitudes toward the United States among Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. "On issues of policy towards Arabs, towards Palestinians, we got an 8 percent favorable in Saudi Arabia, a 9 percent in Lebanon, 15 percent in UAE and one percent in Egypt," Zogby says.
Zogby presented those poll results at a recent Congressional hearing where experts discussed with lawmakers how the United States should improve its standing with people of the Middle East.
Zogby says that when Arabs think about America, many think in terms of how U.S policies have adversely impacted their region and their lives, and how some positive American values, such as freedom and democracy, are not projected evenly across the region. That struck a chord with Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia:
"The general view of the U.S as immoral, licentious, rapacious and seeking to colonize the region has long been standard fare for Arab intellectuals, and so, as a result, for the broader Arab public," Ackerman said. "The war in Iraq, the perception of U.S hypocrisy on the question of democratization, and long-standing U.S support for regimes that are generally disliked by their people, only serve to cement the views that Arab publics already hold."
Representative Ackerman said Arabs do not see the United States the way Americans see it. For many Arabs, he said, U.S public diplomacy is perceived as campaign-style "spin" designed more to impress American audiences than to influence Arab public opinion.
David Pollock, author of a book titled The Arab Street and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, testified at the congressional hearing that the U.S image has declined considerably in several key Arab countries over the past few years. He observed that in the long run, anti-American sentiment in the Arab world could seriously limit U.S policy options in the region.
Dr. Pollock believes the U.S has a daunting task ahead of it: better communications with Arab publics. "A good example of that is the question of U.S policy on a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and a new Palestinian State," Pollock said. "Most Arab publics support that policy and the fact is that so does the U.S, but unfortunately only very small minorities of Arab publics, 7 percent in Egypt or 23 percent in Morocco, for example, believe that this is really the U.S policy."
But pollster James Zogby contends that it is not enough for the United States to preach a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The U.S, he says, needs to play the role of peacemaker to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In Iraq, Zogby says, the U.S. and its coalition partners should find a responsible way to end the four-year-old occupation.
He says spending millions on Arabic-language media outlets like Al Hurra has done little or nothing to improve the U.S image. "It is no secret that I think that the work of Al Hurra is a mess. I think it is unneeded; it is a waste of money," Zogby says, adding that Arabs in the Middle East watch American TV "all day long with our without Al Hurra."
He suggests "there are many other opportunities for us to get our message across than paying tens of millions of dollars to run an alternative network."
Pollster James Zogby believes that in the absence of improved communications between Americans and Arabs, there will likely be a further hardening of negative attitudes in the Middle East toward the United States. And that, Zogby warned members of the U.S. Congress, could intensify pressure on even pro-American Arab governments to distance themselves from the United States.