Originally published in The Asia Times.
Only 20% of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) now view the US president positively, compared to 45% who did so in the spring of 2009, according to the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll conducted by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution and the Zogby International polling firm.
Moreover, negative views of Obama have skyrocketed – from 23% to 62% – since the last poll was conducted in April-May 2009. The new findings were based on interviews with nearly 4,000 adults in the six countries between June 29 and July 20 this year.
When respondents were asked to name the world leader they admired most, Obama’s standing was less than 1%. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was cited most often (20%), followed by last year’s top pick, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (13%), and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (12%).
Erdogan’s rapid rise to the top – he was cited by only 4% last year and never mentioned in the 2008 survey – was due to his outspoken denunciation of the 2008-9 Gaza war waged by Israel and the Turkish role in the aid flotilla to Gaza that was intercepted by Israeli commandos at the end of May, Telhami noted.
Much of the disillusionment with Obama appears related to his failure to make progress in achieving a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, according to Telhami, who has conducted eight previous surveys of Arab opinion since 2000.
Asked what policies pursued by the Obama administration they were most disappointed with, 61% of respondents in the new poll identified the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That was more than twice the percentage of the next-most-cited example, Washington’s Iraq policy (27%).
“This is the prism through which Arabs view the Untied States,” Telhami said, referring to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Iran appears to have benefited, at least indirectly, from Arab disillusionment with Obama, the poll results suggested.
While a majority of respondents (55%) said they believed Tehran’s nuclear program was aimed at developing weapons – a charge denied by Iran – nearly four out of five respondents (77%) said the country had the right to pursue the program – a whopping increase of 24% since last year.
Support for the program was strongest by far in Egypt and Morocco and weakest in the UAE, where a strong majority said Iran should be pressured to halt it.
Conversely, only 20% of respondents said they favored applying international pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program. That was down from the 40% who took that position one year ago.
“Overall, there is very little support here for the notion that Arabs are secretly yearning for the US to attack Iran,” wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, whose blog on foreignpolicy.com has a wide readership.
Moreover, a solid majority (57%) of respondents agreed that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it would lead to a “more positive” outcome in the Middle East region. That was nearly twice the percentage of one year ago (29%). By contrast, only 21% said that it would lead to a “more negative outcome”, compared to a plurality of 46% who took that position in 2009.
These results, Telhami said, are “highly correlated to how [respondents] feel about US policy. It’s mostly an expression of anger and pessimism about US policy.”
Speaking before a standing-room-only audience at Brookings, Telhami stressed that the Arab world, unlike some other key regions, was never “in love with Obama”, but that his election had raised their hopes, particularly after the eight-year reign of George W Bush, who was consistently rated with former Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as the global leader most disliked by Arabs in Telhami’s surveys.
Hopes for Obama rose even further after his June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo where he pledged to “seek a new beginning” in relations between the United States and the Islamic world and expressed particular sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
But those hopes appear to have largely collapsed over the past year, according to the survey’s findings. While he remains a somewhat attractive figure to many Arabs – 48% said they had a favorable personal view of him – an overwhelming majority (89%) said that he either would not or could not change basic US policies in the region.
In one of the most remarkable findings, only 12% of respondents said they had a favorable view of the United States. That was three percentage points less than in the 2008 survey when Bush was still president. At the same time, however, the survey found a significant drop in those with “very unfavorable” views of the United States – from 64% in 2008 to 47% in the latest poll.
Asked what two steps Washington could take that would most improve their views of the US, respondents cited achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, withdrawing from Iraq, stopping aid to Israel, and withdrawing from the Arabian Peninsula in that order. Democracy promotion and economic aid received much less support.
Asked which two factors they believed were most important in driving US policy in the Middle East, respondents most commonly cited protecting Israel, controlling oil, weakening the Muslim world, and preserving regional and global dominance in that order. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting stability, fighting terrorism, and spreading human rights and democracy received many fewer mentions.
Asked what two countries posed the greatest threats to them personally, respondents cited Israel (88%) and the US (77%) – exactly the same results as in the 2009 survey. When Bush was still president, 95% of respondents cited Israel; 88% the US. By contrast, Iran was cited by 10% of respondents, down from 13% last year.
On Israel, the new survey found a significant increase in the belief that the Jewish state exercised a more powerful influence on the US than the other way around.
Asked what motivates Israeli policies and US support for them, a plurality of 47% said they believed “Israel decides on its own interests and influences the US”, compared to 24% who took that position two years ago. By contrast, 20% said they believed “Israel is a tool of American foreign policy,” while 33% agreed that the “US and Israel have mutual interests”.
Pessimism about prospects for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in the medium term has also increased in the last two years. While 40% believed such a settlement was “inevitable”, only 4 said they thought it would happen in the next five years – down from 13% in 2008. A majority of 54% believed such an accord would never happen.
As to their own view about such a peace, a record 86% of respondents said they were prepared for peace if Israel was willing to return all the territories it captured in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. But 56% said they believed “Israel will never give up these territories easily.”
Twelve percent said that Arabs should continue to fight even if Israel agrees to such a compromise. Last year, 25% of respondents took that position.