Marc Lynch

Arab confidence in Obama collapsing

Arab confidence in Obama collapsing

In May I released a report for CNAS co-authored with Kristin Lord about the Obama administration’s strategy of engagement which warned that "as the administration entered its second year, there was a palpable sense that the Obama bubble had deflated." We warned that Arab publics, in particular, had grown frustrated at Obama’s perceived failure to deliver on the promise of the "new beginning" outlined in Cairo and had begun to lose hope in his ability to meaningfully change American policies towards the region. The findings of the annual survey of Arab public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami, released publicly today, offer stark evidence for this deflating bubble.  

Telhami reports that positive views of President Obama have dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to 20 percent today, with his negatives rising even further — from 23 percent to 62 percent — as fence-sitters waiting to see what he delivered render their verdict. Only 12 percent express favorable views of the United States, compared to 15 percent in the final year of the Bush administration.  Only 16 percent declare themselves hopeful about administration policies, compared to 51 percent last year, and a statistically insignificant 1 percent are pleased with the administration’s policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sixty-three percent declare themselves discouraged, up from 15 percent. Deflating bubbles don’t get illustrated much more starkly than this. While there are always problems with public opinion surveys in the Arab world, and results should be taken with caution, these findings are consistent with other recent surveys and with almost all other streams of evidence. I would argue that the results actually do not contradict last week’s more optimistic reading of the administration’s foreign policy – but they do point to some significant and uncomfortable realities about the costs of failing to deliver meaningful change.  

The survey’s findings suggest overwhelmingly that it is the administration’s failures on the Israeli-Palestinian front which drove the collapse in Arab attitudes towards Obama. Sixty-one percent of the respondents say that this is the area in which they are most disappointed (Iraq, at 27 percent, is the only other issue which cracks double digits — only one percent name "spreading democracy").  Only one percent say they are pleased with his policy. Fifty-four percent name an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as one of two things which would most improve their views of the United States (withdrawing from Iraq is second, at 45 percent , and stopping aid to Israel third at 43 percent ). The numbers of Arabs saying they are prepared for peace with Israel has risen — to 86 percent — but so has the number who say that Israel will not give up the occupied territories (from 45 percent to 56 percent ). Only 12 percent — down from 25 percent last year — say that Arabs should continue to fight even if there is a two-state peace agreement.  Should a tw0-state solution collapse, 57 percent expect intense conflict for years to come, 30% expect the status quo, and only ten percent expect  a one-state solution.

On the bright side, there are hints that Obama’s approach to Islam is having some positive impact, despite the general displeasure with his foreign policy.  His attitudes towards Islam are by far the most popular part of his foreign policy, with 20 percent naming this as the policy they are most pleased with.  And even as Arab support for Obama’s foreign policy has collapsed, there has been a significant drop in those with "very unfavorable" views of the United States– from 64 percent in 2008 to 47 percent today. To the extent that those with more intense preferences are likely to be more supportive of terrorism, this suggests some real and enduring progress.  

The findings on Iran are also important. Most Arabs continue to think that Iran seeks nuclear weapons (55 percent ) rather than for peaceful purposes (37 percent ).  But 77 percent now say that Iran has the right to its nuclear program — up from 53 percent in 2009.  Only 20 percent say that Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear program, down from 40 percent last year. And 57 percent now say that the effects on the region of Iran getting nuclear weapons would be positive — up from 29 percent last year — and only 21 percent say the effects would be negative.    Among those who say that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, there is greater support for international pressure:  68 percent of Jordanians, 50 percent of Saudis, 73 percent of Emiratis and 67 percent of Lebanese take that position (though only 16 percent of Egyptians do). But overall, there is very little support here for the notion that Arabs are secretly yearning for the United States to attack Iran. Really little.  

Oh, and in the non-surprising category, the survey reveals that Turkey really is increasingly popular — second only to France on the question of which country is playing the most constructive role in the region.  Erdogan is now the most popular individual in the Middle East, with 39 percent ranking him first or second (20 percent first place). He beats out Ahmedenejad at 19 percent (12 percent first place) and Nasrallah (12 percent ) and everyone else by a wide margin. 

The results of  Telhami’s survey, which strongly support the analysis in our America’s Extended Hand report, should be sobering for supporters of the administration’s foreign policy. The perceived failure to deliver meaningful change has taken its toll. Public opinion surveys are only one part of the story — the goals of engagement are always broader than "moving the numbers" in opinion surveys, even if any administration would happily trumpet positive numbers, and deny the significance of bad numbers. If the administration begins to deliver — on Israeli-Palestinian peace, on the withdrawal from Iraq, on engagement with Iran — then the numbers will change. I’m more optimistic about the prospects of the administration delivering on some of those — especially Iraq and Iran — than are others. But since the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains what Telhami calls the "prism" through which Arabs evaluate American policy, that may not be enough.