x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Obama is fighting a losing battle for Arab opinion

Barack Obama has said he suspects Arab impressions of the West will remain low until the US can help find a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We now have numbers to support Mr Obama's assumptions.

The US president, Barack Obama, has said he suspects that Arab impressions of the West will remain low until the US can help find a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We now have numbers to support Mr Obama's assumptions.

In Zogby International's recent survey of over 4,000 Arabs from six countries - Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - we found that favourable attitudes towards the US had declined sharply since our last poll, conducted in 2009 after Mr Obama's first 100 days in office.

Back then, Arabs were hopeful that the new president would bring needed change to US-Arab relationships and the early steps taken by his administration only served to reinforce this view. As a result, favourable attitudes towards the US climbed significantly from Bush-era lows.

But as our respondents made clear in this year's survey, those expectations have not been met and US favourable ratings in most Arab countries have now fallen to levels lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration.

In Morocco, for example, positive attitudes towards the United States went from 26 per cent in 2008 to a high of 55 per cent in 2009. Today, they have fallen to 12 per cent. The story was much the same in Egypt, where favourable ratings went from 9 per cent in 2008 to 30 per cent in 2009, back down to 5 per cent.

A review of the poll's other results makes it clear that the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands is seen by most Arabs as both the main "obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East" and "the most important issue for the US to address in order to improve its ties with the Arab world".

That Palestinian land trumps all other issues measured in the survey throws cold water on the wishful thinking of some analysts in the US and Israel who want to imagine that, in the context of this year's Arab uprisings, Arabs now feel "that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not as central to their lives as they were led to believe".

What our respondents tell us is that the second highest ranking - "obstacle to peace and stability" - is "US interference in the Arab world", which explains why the US role in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya is neither viewed favourably in most countries, nor is it seen as improving Arab attitudes toward America.

In fact when presented with several countries (such as Turkey, Iran, France, China and the United States) and asked to evaluate whether or not each of them plays a constructive role "in promoting peace and stability in the Arab world", eight in 10 Arabs gave a negative assessment to the US role, rating it significantly lower than France, Turkey, China and, in four of the six Arab countries polled, even lower than Iran.

All of this might have been expected but it is still sobering news that should send a strong signal to Americans and serve as a check on the reckless behaviour of some lawmakers. For example, when Congress invites the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to give an address that challenged and insulted the president - and then gave the foreign leader repeated standing ovations - they told Arabs that America can't and won't play a constructive peace making role. And when Congress continues to obstruct diplomacy and supports bills cutting much needed assistance programmes to the Palestinians, Lebanon and Egypt, they are sending Arabs the wrong message.

Neoconservatives continue to argue for a more muscular Middle East foreign policy, urging the White House to use force or to make more demands on various Arab parties, one more sign they are blind to the realities of the region and are treading on dangerous ground.

To his credit, Mr Obama seems to understands the dilemma America confronts across the Arab world. He began his term in office with the right intentions and sent signals that he would move in the right direction.

But Mr Obama did not receive a magic wand on Inauguration Day. Instead, he was handed the shovel that President George W Bush had been using to dig holes all over the Middle East. Getting out of those holes has been harder than Mr Obama imagined.

In addition to confronting the worst domestic economic crisis in generations, Mr Obama has had to face down two failed wars, an incorrigible and manipulative Israeli leader, a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian polity, and a wary but hopeful (maybe too hopeful) world that expected him to deliver on promised change.

If anything, the results of our latest poll of Arab opinion demonstrates how precarious the position of the United States is in the Middle East and how important it has become for American policy makers to pay attention to what Arabs are saying.

Some in the United States may play politics with critical Middle East issues and gloat at their success at having stymied Mr Obama's efforts to make peace and restore America's image in the region. But as the results of this survey make clear, their success has come at a price, one that is being paid by the entire country.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute