Amid the continuing violence and political turmoil in the Middle East, it's become increasingly important for U.S. policymakers to get an accurate reading of Arab public opinion. The problem is, the polls keep showing the same result: that most Arab citizens hold strongly negative attitudes toward the United States and U.S. policies in the Middle East.
A new private poll of public attitudes in six Arab states shows those views are not softening. The finding suggests that U.S. public diplomacy still has much work to do to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world. Rob Sivak has more with this report by Mohamed Elshinnawi.
The annual opinion poll – conducted over the past month by the University of Maryland and Zogby International – found that fully eight out of 10 Arabs hold unfavorable views of the United States.
"Seventy percent have no confidence in the U.S.," says Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, who was principle investigator for the survey. He notes that compared to 2006, a larger number of people have "a very unfavorable opinion of the U.S. – 64% over 57% the year before."
The survey polled 4000 respondents living in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Eighty percent said their opinions were shaped by the policies of the U.S. government, not by American values or culture. Eighty-three percent of respondents identified the Arab-Israeli conflict as a key issue and 55 percent said they believe that despite U.S. efforts to broker a compromise between the two sides before the end of this year, a lasting peace is unlikely.
Professor Telhami says respondents were asked what kinds of actions the U.S. could take to improve Arab perceptions. "Brokering Arab-Israeli peace is still the number one answer," he says, adding, "50 percent total say brokering Arab-Israeli peace, but what we see is that (those favoring) withdrawal from Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, (their) numbers are growing."
Eight in 10 Arabs questioned in the new poll believe that Iraqis are worse off today than they were before the U.S. invasion in March, 2003. But when it comes to support for a rapid withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Telhami says there seems to be a disparity between the Arab public and their governments.
"Arab governments are very worried about rapid American withdrawal from Iraq," he says. "They worry that there will be instability and they want to a coordinate, and they worry about civil war and about the increasing influence of Iran."
On the other hand, Telhami says, "Sixty-one percent of the public overall thinks that Iraqis would find a way to come together." That is an increase from 44 percent in 2006.
Asked to name which world leader they dislike most, 63 percent of the Arab respondents listed U.S. President George Bush. Their disaffection appears to be extending to the next U.S president, as well.
Only 18 percent of respondents believe Democratic candidate Barack Obama has the best chance of advancing peace in the Middle East, followed by just 13 percent who perceive candidate Hillary Clinton as the best hope.
The likely Republican nominee for president, Senator John McCain, ranked third, with only 4 percent. And one in three respondents believe U.S. policy in the Middle East would remain the same, no matter who wins the White House this November.
The University of Maryland/Zogby International poll also looked at some of the public diplomacy efforts the U.S. has launched since the terrorist attacks of 2001, including new radio and television broadcasting services designed to reach large Arab audiences.
The survey showed that across the Arab world, viewership of the U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra television service remains at just 2 percent, while the Arab-run Al-Jazeera TV network enjoys a 53 percent share of the Arab audience.
David Pollack of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy say it takes more than radio and TV programs to win Arab hearts and minds. "The key issue is policies, not propaganda, and that means that the U.S. needs to convince people that it is actually listening to their concerns and doing something about them."
Pollack says, "One of the top issues is to really promote an Arab-Israeli – Palestinian-Israeli, especially – peace agreement. I think that would have a very positive effect overall on Arab public opinion."
No matter what the Arab public thinks, and no matter who the next U.S. president turns out to be, Pollack says some aspects of American policy in the Middle East are unlikely to change, including the American determination to be friends with both Israel and its Arab neighbors.
But Pollack believes that if the situation in Iraq improves, it could have a positive effect on American policies in the region. Mostly, he says, it would enable U.S. policymakers to pay closer attention to other issues and concerns on the minds of the Arab public.