A new public opinion poll finds that most Americans support the protests in the Arab world and favor greater democracy there, even if it leads to governments that are less friendly to the United States.
The poll was conducted earlier this month by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Respondents were asked about the changes that have swept across the Arab world since the beginning of the year.
By a factor of three to one, more said they believe the uprisings are about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy than those who said they are about Islamist groups seeking political power.
Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said it would be positive for the United States if the countries in the Middle East become more democratic.
Political scientist Shibley Telhami, who oversaw the poll, says it was striking that 57 percent of respondents supported the democracy movements, even when told they might result in governments that oppose U.S. foreign policies.
"That's quite extraordinary actually because normally our fear of a less friendly government trumps our wish to advocate democracy and this happened as a tradeoff in American foreign policy over the years," said Telhami.
Telhami says American views of Arabs have become more positive as a result of the uprisings.
"Particularly [regarding] the people of Egypt, where you have 70 percent of Americans having a favorable view of Egyptian people, which is roughly on a par with the American attitudes toward the Israeli people," he said.
The survey found little change in who Americans favor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On that question, 65 percent said the United States should be neutral, while 27 percent of Americans think the United States should favor Israel, compared to five percent who want it to support the Palestinians.
Despite the sympathy for the democracy movements, the poll found diminishing support for the coalition airstrikes in Libya and a majority of respondents were against arming the rebels there.
Steven Kull is Director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes:
"The survey basically says: 'Don't push for democratization," said Kull. "Don't come down firmly on the side of the demonstrators. But if things do end up in a democratic direction, let's cheer it.'"
The survey was released on the eve of a conference on relations between the United States and the Muslim world here in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduled to give the keynote address.