- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
I wanted to call attention to the Gallup Organization’s latest report on findings of its ongoing surveys of Arab public opinion. There’s a lot of questionable survey research done in the Middle East, but Gallup (along with Pew) is generally considered the gold standard for such survey research. I’ve talked a number of times with the direct of research at Gallup and have been impressed by the professionalism and non-ideological nature of its work. Gallup’s findings therefore deserve attention.
There’s one important caveat, though. The interviews were carried out between May and August 2008, so they shouldn’t be used as evidence about any alleged Obama Effect. At best, the survey offers a snapshot of where Obama would have begun had Israel not attacked Gaza. The terrain is markedly different now, the well poisoned, and the uphill climb steeper.
Not that it wasn’t steep before. It’s no surprise to anyone that the Bush administration has left a tattered American image in the broader Middle East. Approval ratings for U.S. leadership range from 4% in Syria, to 6% in Egypt, 12% in Saudi Arabia, 13% of Palestinians, 16% of Iranians, and 25% of Lebanese (down from 40% three years ago). Those dismal figures are in line with past surveys, and seem a bit down compared to some other surveys conducted earlier last year. The Bush administration’s last Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Jim Glassman, used to say that Global Strategic Engagement should focus on delegitimating the enemy (al-Qaeda) rather than improving America’s favorable ratings in these surveys. I guess that worked out as planned, then. (For the record, I actually agree that it’s perfectly possible to hurt al-Qaeda’s image without improving America’s image — there’s little relationship between the two — but that doesn’t mean that the level of approval of the U.S. doesn’t matter for other reasons.)
Gallup also asked which of series of actions by the U.S. would improve views of American leadership. The main finding was that "residents in eight of the countries surveyed are most likely to say the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq would improve their opinion very significantly." Closing Guantanamo was also frequently cited, while a variety of economic and political reform suggestions received a degree of support varying by country.
There’s one enormous problem with this part of the reporting of the survey, though: no results are presented about the impact of changing U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since virtually every survey has found this to be among the most — and usually the single most — important issue shaping Arab perceptions of American foreign policy, that’s a pretty major omission. Gallup provides this note: "Gallup did ask respondents to rate an action concerning Israel, but those data are unavailable at this time." So while I do think that Iraq is an important issue shaping Arab perceptions of the U.S. take that headline finding with a major league portion of salt.