Web Chat: The U.S., Pakistan and the “Arab Spring” after Bin Laden

On May 11, expert Shibley Telhami took your questions in a live web chat on the future U.S. role in Pakistan, the Middle East and North Africa after the death of Osama bin Laden.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:29 David Mark: Welcome to today’s chat. Let’s get started.

12:30 [Comment From Jeff D.: ] Why are Pakistan and other countries in the Arab world so hospitable to al Qaeda?

12:30 Shibley Telhami: It is inaccurate to say that the Arab world has been hospitable to al Qaeda, although in Pakistan, the organization certainly has some public support. The problem is a different one and goes to the heart of how bin Laden could have been hiding in an ordinary house not too far from the Pakistani capital, under the noses of the military. When Arab and Muslim publics are more angry with the United States than they are with al Qaeda, the organization wins by default, as “the enemy of my enemy.” In my public opinion polls in the Arab world those who sympathize with any aspect of al Qaeda at all primarily say they sympathize with the fact that al Qaeda is standing up to the United States, whose policies they oppose, and only about six per cent embrace al Qaeda’s agenda of establishing a Taliban-like Islamic order. In Pakistan, the attitudes are even stronger, which is why I always believed many people in Arab and Muslim societies will look the other way rather than fight al Qaeda if they are more angry with the United States. So the challenge is always how do you fight al Qaeda militarily while at the same time winning the hearts and minds of the public, as the latter is indispensable for succeeding in the war on that organization and on its allies. The good news is the Arab spring has created an environment in the Arab world where the public will increasingly see al Qaeda as a direct threat to their own aspirations. This has not yet happened in Pakistan.

12:30 [Comment From Terrence: ] Keeping in mind the “Arab Spring,” what is al Qaeda likely to do now?

12:35 Shibley Telhami: The Arab Spring has been the anti-al Qaeda, the nightmare Bin Laden witnessed before his death: it has been largely peaceful, not-ideological, seeking freedom, dignity and human rights, not religious extremism or militancy. Al Qaeda has had a difficult time finding a voice in this environment. The death of Bin Laden may give them an opening, as everyone expects them to try to avenge his death. I expect that they will probably try to target some of their enemies who are also enemies in the eyes of the Arab public, such as the Yemeni leadership, as they hope this will score points with the Arab public. Certainly, they will continue to try to target the U.S.

12:36 David Mark: How strong is the al Qaeda faction in Yemen at this point?

12:39 Shibley Telhami: From all available information, it remains strong, and therefore will likely try to assert itself. However, one of the things that we have to re-assess is the exact accuracy of the information we have about the strength of al Qaeda and its allies in many Middle Eastern countries, as some of that information was coming from local intelligence services that have every incentive to exaggerate the threat and extract support. There is also now a public who increasingly sees al Qaeda as a threat to its aspirations.

12:39 [Comment From Muhammad: ] Whereas there is no debate on elimination of OBL, the question remains how well has the US served its interest by conducting the raid the way it was conducted. Humiliating an ally and setting an example of the possible costs that other allies should be prepared to pay.

12:42 Shibley Telhami: The killing of Bin Laden obviously has some people in Arab and Muslim countries and elsewhere asking questions about how it was conducted. And there is evidence that even the Administration itself was divided on this issue. It is obvious though that the gains are far bigger than the costs, and keep in mind that no matter how this operation was conducted, there would have been some reason to criticize the U.S. If, for example, Bin Laden had been arrested and brought to Guantánamo, imagine how every day there would be an opportunity for negative press on this.

12:42 [Comment From Sally: ] Any reaction to the decision not to show the photos of bin Laden’s death?

12:45 Shibley Telhami: My own sense is that publishing the pictures would have resulted in some negative reaction among some of the hard core supporters of Bin Laden and those who are trying to find some reason to criticize the U.S., but not in a way dramatically different from the decision not to publish the pictures.

12:45 [Comment From Tom: ] I know you sometimes do public opinion polling. Have there been any notable changes since bin Laden’s death?

12:48 Shibley Telhami: I have not yet conducted my annual Arab public opinion poll this year, as I will be conducting it next month. But it is hard to miss already how much of a side story al Qaeda already is in the midst of the Arab Spring. Think here of how Libyan leader Qaddifi is trying to appeal to Arab public opinion: by arguing that the rebels are al Qaeda operatives. That tells the story.

12:48 [Comment From Guest: ] Why are many Arabs angry with the US? The US has given billions of dollars of aid money…

12:51 Shibley Telhami: In the Arab public opinion polls we have been conducting for the past decade, most Arabs look at the United States through the prisms of very specific foreign policy issues that matter most to them, primarily the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Iraq war issue. I have written on this in my book “The Stakes” and also you can find some articles at, or

12:51 [Comment From Sue: ] What do you think will happen in Libya? Is the U.S. government handling that correctly?

12:52 Shibley Telhami: I believe that the Obama administration handled the Libya issue reasonably well. I personally believe that the American participation in the international intervention was justified morally and that it was in the American national interest. At the same time, I believe the decision not to send ground forces is the right one. The Qaddafi regime will in the end fall, because few leaders are more isolated than it is. What happens after remains an open question, as there are few people who really know how Libyan society has been transformed over the past 60 years, but this will be for the Libyan people to decide, and the fall of the regime will send positive messages to the Arab publics elsewhere.

12:56 [Comment From Calandra: ] Has Obama improved the image of the US in the hearts and minds of Arab and Muslim peoples?

1:01 Shibley Telhami: This is an interesting question I have also written about, particularly in an article you can find in the web sites I posted above, titled “Can Obama Win Both Arabs and Israelis?” which was in part based on public opinion polls I conducted. Favorable views of Obama declined considerably from the first months of his presidency. The overwhelming majority of Arabs name the Arab-Israeli issue as the reason for their change in attitude. At the same time, in contrast to George W. Bush, who was identified by most Arabs as their most disliked world leader, Obama does not have strong negative views, and there is evidence his new language toward the Muslim world has been well received. In that sense, fewer people see his foreign policy as weakening the Muslim world.

1:01 David Mark: Thanks for the chat, everybody.