Article

Arab Public Opinion on the United States and Iraq: Postwar Prospects for changing prewar views

Shibley Telhami

A survey that I conducted in six Arab countries in late February and early March found an unprecedented tide of public opinion running against the United States as American troops massed outside Iraq. Only 4 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia, 6 percent in Jordan and Morocco, 10 percent in the united Arab Emirates, and 13 percent in Egypt expressed a favorable view of the United States. Even in Lebanon, where opinion was more positive, only 32 percent of respondents had a favorable view (see table 1). And when respondents were asked, in an open question, to name the world leader they most admired, the name mentioned most often was French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who confronted the Bush administration directly to try to stop the U.S. war effort.


Table 1. What Is Your Attitude toward the United States?
COUNTRY FAVORABLE UNFAVORABLE NOT FAMILIAR
OVERALL VERY SOMEWHAT OVERALL VERY SOMEWHAT
Lebanon 32% 10% 22% 59% 40% 19% 6%
Egypt 13 2 10 79 58 20 4
UAE 10 2 8 86 31 55 2
Morocco 6 1 4 91 67 24 3
Jordan 6 1 5 80 63 17 10
Saudi Arabia 4 4 95 68 27 1

Most of the 3,020 respondents polled agreed that their negative view of the United States was based on American policy in the Middle East, not on their values as Arabs (see table 2). In four countries—Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, and Jordan-large majorities of respondents (from 58 percent to 67 percent) explained their unfavorable attitudes toward the United States as being based on American policy in the Middle East. In the UAE and Egypt almost a majority—47 percent and 46 percent, respectively—based their attitudes on U.S. policy.

Although polling conducted in the region by Zogby International over the past several years has consistently found unfavorable views of the United States, these findings are the most negative that I’ve seen. And at the heart of Arab attitudes are resentment of U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and deep mistrust of American’s intentions in Iraq. Huge majorities expressed suspicions about what motivates U.S. policy toward Iraq. The number one answer they give is oil, with more than 80 percent agreeing that oil is an extremely important motivating factor for the United States. The number two answer—gaining assent from more than 70 percent of respondents—is U.S. support for Israel. The answers given least frequently are democracy, economic development, or peace.


Table 2. On What Are Your Attitudes toward the United States Based?
COUNTRY BASED ON MY VALUES BASED ON U.S. POLICY NOT SURE
Saudi Arabia 33% 67% 0%
Morocco 37 59 4
Lebanon 29 58 14
Jordan 36 58 6
UAE 48 47 5
Egypt 43 46 11

The opposition to war with Iraq was also driven by pessimism about its outcome. Asked what they thought would be the result of the U.S.-Iraq war, large majorities in all six countries responded that they thought the war would bring in its wake less democracy (table 3), less peace (table 4), and more terrorism (table 5). Just 2 percent of Moroccans, 3 percent of Saudis, and 6 percent of Egyptians believed that the Middle East would be more democratic after the war. More than two-thirds of respondents believed that the Middle East would be less democratic. And more than 80 percent believed that the war would generate more terrorism.


Table 3. Will the U.S.-Iraq War Mean More Democracy or Less Democracy in the Middle East?
COUNTRY MORE DEMOCRACY LESS DEMOCRACY NEITHER NOT SURE
UAE 8% 59% 25% 8%
Jordan 7 58 26 9
Lebanon 7 73 16 4
Egypt 6 63 18 13
Saudi Arabia 3 95 2 0
Morocco 2 66 21 11

Table 4. Will the U.S.-Iraq War Mean More Peace or Less Peace in the Middle East?
COUNTRY MORE PEACE LESS PEACE NEITHER NOT SURE
Lebanon 9% 79% 10% 3%
Egypt 5 79 13 2
Saudi Arabia 5 91 3 0
Jordan 4 60 30 7
UAE 3 76 19 2
Morocco 1 89 8 2

Table 5. Will the U.S.-Iraq War Mean More Terrorism or Less Terrorism in the Middle East?
COUNTRY MORE TERRORISM LESS TERRORISM NEITHER NOT SURE
Saudi Arabia 96% 2% 1% 0%
Morocco 87 1 8 4
Lebanon 81 9 7 4
Jordan 78 3 11 8
Egypt 75 7 15 3
UAE 74 7 17 3

Overwhelming majorities also believed that war with Iraq would worsen prospects for settling the Arab-Israeli dispute (table 6).


Table 6. Will the U.S.-Iraq War Mean Better Prospects or Worse Prospects for
a Settlement of the Arab-Israeli Dispute?
COUNTRY BETTER PROSPECTS WORSE PROSPECTS NEITHER NOT SURE
Egypt 16% 67% 7% 10%
Jordan 6 79 10 6
Lebanon 5 82 9 5
UAE 4 58 31 8
Morocco 1 85 5 8
Saudi Arabia 1 97 1 0

Can the United States Overcome the Negative Views?

Though it is far too early for any long-term assessment of what the U.S.-Iraq war will ultimately mean for the Middle East, the views expressed by the Arabs polled underline how urgent it is for U.S. policymakers to try to counter the negative views of America in the region. Although the shock of the war has prompted some reflection and some reassessment among Arabs—particularly, it has forced a reluctant recognition of the brutality of the regime of Saddam Hussein—the Arab view of the United States today remains largely the same as that expressed in the polls.

Arabs believe to this day that the United States is in Iraq for oil. The regional media coverage of the war focused heavily on the fact that much of the postwar looting happened in hospitals and museums, left unprotected by U.S. forces, and not in the oil installations and oil ministries, which were heavily guarded by troops. Countering the strong negative impression left by such media coverage will not be easy. Repeated statements by leaders in Washington that the United States has no intention of leaving American forces in Iraq in the long term should begin to alleviate Arab concerns that U.S. forces plan to guard the oilfields permanently, but policymakers face a dilemma. On the one hand, the United States does not want to withdraw from Iraq prematurely and leave anarchy behind. On the other hand, the United States does not want to appear to be staying in Iraq as an imperial power to protect oil interests. Given the prevailing mistrust and suspicion, the only solution to the dilemma seems to be bringing in other parties, particularly multicultural organizations, in a credible and meaningful way, to legitimize the continued U.S. presence in Iraq until a new, stable, and representative government emerges.

Arab suspicions that the war will decrease rather than increase democracy are well founded-and for several reasons. First, when, in the weeks leading up to the war, the U.S. government asked for help from friendly Arab governments whose people bitterly opposed the war, those governments’ only recourse was to go against the popular will by using their security services to be more repressive. Thoughout the war period, many Arabs personally experienced more repression—and less democracy—and probably will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. And, second, the past 35 years have destroyed Iraq’s middle class and nearly all Iraqi civil institutions and organizations. The primary organizational capacity that remains is religious, as the million Shia marchers to Karbala in the aftermath of the war demonstrated. Whenever the first Iraqi election takes place, whether this year or next, the leaders who are best able to mobilize large numbers of voters are the clergy. If by democracy we mean a truly free electoral democracy, what are the chances that any free election is going to have an outcome that Washington will find acceptable in the foreseeable future? In addition, it was clear by the end of the first month after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime that the United States had lost its one chance at a favorable first impression with the Iraqi people, whose hate for Saddam has not translated into love for America, given the anarchy and humanitarian disaster that followed the war.

Finally, there is the issue of Arab-Israeli peace, which remains a prism through which the Arab world sees America. U.S. policymakers must do everything possible to revive credible Palestinian-Israeli negotations that keep alive the hope for peace. Quite apart from the moral need to alleviate hardship and help the Israelis and Palestinians who have suffered so long from regional violence, negotiations would also serve the practical need to counter the belief of the overwhelming majority of the Arabs polled that the U.S.-Iraq war makes the prospect of an Arab-Israeli settlement less rather than more likely. Bush administration efforts in the coming months to put Israelis and Palestinians on the road to peace would be the single most important signal it could send to persuade the Arab people to begin reassessing their views of the United States.