Shadow Government

The limits of Arab opinion polling

For all of the talk these days about the wide divide between the United States and the Arab world, a cynic might observe that one thing that the American people and Arab people share in common is disappointment with President Obama. His current 45 percent Gallup approval rating in the United States is a substantial ...


For all of the talk these days about the wide divide between the United States and the Arab world, a cynic might observe that one thing that the American people and Arab people share in common is disappointment with President Obama. His current 45 percent Gallup approval rating in the United States is a substantial decline from the 60 percent of a year ago, and corresponds with a climb in his disapproval rating from about 37 percent to 47 percent in the same timeframe. Meanwhile, the newest edition of the Arab Public Opinion Poll by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution reveals an even more dramatic decline in President Obama’s approval ratings among Arab publics in six major countries. In just one year, the percentage of Arabs having positive views of Obama declined from 45 percent to 20 percent, while his disapproval ratings in the Arab world skyrocketed from 23 percent to 62 percent.

The negative opinion numbers in the Brookings survey should at least disabuse the Obama administration of over-prioritizing its inaugural goals of improving America’s poll ratings around the world — because doing so does not necessarily advance American interests. Nor do global approval ratings necessarily indicate wise and effective policies. The task of statecraft is not to chase the whims of public opinion, but to pursue policies that serve the nation and that over time will create a more stable, free, prosperous, and peaceful world.

Whether the Brookings poll heralds a global trend remains to be seen. This Legatum Institute-RUSI poll from May revealed the growing disappointment with Obama here in the United Kingdom; a telling barometer of overall European public opinion will be the forthcoming 2010 edition of the German Marshall Fund’s landmark Transatlantic Trends survey. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey also found declines in Obama’s standing in Muslim-majority countries while still retaining high approval elsewhere in the world, such as East Asia.

My fellow FP contributor Marc Lynch offers some thoughtful insights on the Arab Public Opinion Poll results, which he regards as worrisome, though mindful of important caveats on the limitations of polling in a region beset with autocratic governments and restrictions on freedom of expression and media. Yet as troubling as these new numbers may be, the salience of public opinion polls overseas should not be exaggerated — and here the Obama administration can take heart. Public opinion surveys in the Middle East in particular can be fickle, elusive, and unreliable indicators of true beliefs. And global public opinion polls in general do not provide sufficient — or sometimes even helpful — guidance for policy-making.

Illustrating the deficiencies of opinion surveys in the Middle East, David Pollock and his team at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently issued a study "Actions, Not Just Attitudes" measuring behavior towards the United States in the Arab World. The path-breaking approach creates an "Arab Behavior Index" assessing variables such as the number of visas sought by Arabs to visit or study in the United States, amounts of American brand products purchased in the Arab world, number and scope of anti-American protests, etc. In other words, it measures what Arabs do, not just what they say. Based on these indicators, the study finds that the disposition of Arab publics towards the United States is fairly positive — and has been since the allegedly dismal days of 2003. In its words:

In short, regardless of what Arab opinion polls or media say, overall relations with the United States — official and popular — improved steadily in many respects throughout the second term of the ‘profoundly unpopular’ Bush administration."

A related deficiency of opinion polls is that they try to capture people’s thoughts on imagined scenarios, without experiencing the reality of what that change might mean. For example, while the Brookings survey finds 45 percent of Arabs saying the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would improve their view of the United States, such a question does not address the potential consequences of a premature withdrawal. If an early U.S. exit were to relegate Iraq to collapse as a failed state, civil war, or quasi-colonization by Iran, opinions of the United States in the region would likely plummet even further. (Or to take a vivid recent example, President Bush’s decision in 2007 to surge troops in Iraq was universally unpopular in the region, the rest of the world, and at home in the United State. But it produced the needed results, as Obama’s speech last week demonstrated, albeit without crediting his predecessor).

So while aspects of Obama’s Cairo speech last year may have helped produce a momentary spike in his popularity in the region, a much more enduring benefit for America’s standing in the Arab world will come from implementing sound policies that produce good results. Such as successfully completing the mission in Iraq so that it becomes a nation peaceful, secure, and free; promoting political and economic reform among the region’s many repressive regimes and stagnant economies; addressing regional threats such as the Iranian nuclear program; and yes, patiently pursuing a fair and durable two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Doing so may entail being unpopular in the short-term — but such is often the cost of leadership.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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