Posted on December 18, 2006 in Washington Watch

Sometimes polling reveals the obvious. And sometimes the obvious needs to be revealed.

Our most recent Arab American Institute/Zogby International (AAI/ZI) survey of Arab public opinion demonstrates that overall attitudes toward the US have worsened, and that negative attitudes have hardened.

Here’s the obvious: the two principal factors accounting for this animosity are US policy toward Iraq and Palestine. In four of the five Arab countries covered in our 2006 survey (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan) respondents pointed to US policies in those two areas as the major reasons for their negative attitudes toward the US. Only Lebanon was different. There, of course, US policy toward this summer’s war on Lebanon was the main source of animosity.

It becomes important to state the obvious in the face of the harsh and misguided criticism being leveled at the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG) report. The ISG critics pretend: (1) that the US has no significant credibility problem that impedes our ability to function in the Middle East, and (2) that in any case, US behavior toward the Palestinians is inconsequential to this discussion.

The reality is that the US has a huge (and growing) problem in the Arab world and both Iraq and Palestine are central to it.

In our 2006 AAI/ZI poll, we found that overall favorable attitudes toward the US plummeted precipitously in Morocco and Jordan (from the mid 30 percent range in 2005 to single digits this year). In Egypt and Saudi Arabia our already low favorable ratings (14% and 12% respectively) didn’t change, but negative attitudes hardened. In Lebanon, too, favorable attitudes didn’t change, but this reflects that country’s deep sectarian divide – with Lebanese Shi’a bitterly hostile toward the US, Sunni Muslims in Lebanon also having strong negative attitudes toward the US, while, Lebanese Christians are split in their views.

What ought to be of special concern to US leaders is what I have termed the “hardening” of the negatives. Not only have “unfavorable” attitudes now become “very unfavorable”, but Arab appreciation of other aspects of American life have also suffered.

Back in 2002 when we conducted our first AAI/ZI poll across the region, we found that while overall attitudes were negative, these were pure and simple a function of frustration with US policy. Despite this, we found in 2002 that Arabs still liked “American freedom and democracy”, “American people” and American products and culture. Not so in 2006. The steady drip, drip, drip of bad policies has eroded once favorable attitudes toward American people, products and values. Only US education gets favorable ratings in all Arab countries, while “American freedom and democracy” and “American products” receive net favorable ratings only in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

What all this means, of course, is that the Middle East policies pursued by the Bush Administration have not only put the US at risk in the region, they also potentially compromise our people, our ability to business and our relationships with Arab allies.

Given this reality, it is bizarre for Washington policy makers to talk cavalierly about forming a US-Arab (and Israeli!) alliance to confront Iran. As I have said before, it is either disingenuous or just plain dumb, for ISG critics to argue that there is no linkage between US policies in Palestine and the Administration’s ability to build strong regional partnerships to stabilize Iraq and confront Iran’s nuclear ambition.

One need only recall how in 1990-1991, then President George H. W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker successfully mobilized an international coalition to roll back Sadaam’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Despite the raging of pro-Israel critics, Bush and Baker recognized regional linkages. They, therefore, committed the US to a post-war international conference to promote a comprehensive Middle East peace. This enhanced that Administration’s regional credibility, setting the stage for the liberation of Kuwait and the convening of the Madrid peace conference.

Since the results of this conference were less than satisfactory and given the fact that Arab support was strained by the collapse of the interminable and directionless peace process that followed Madrid, this time, much more than merely the promise of a conference or peace process will be required to earn Arab trust. There will have to be performance.

With performance, will come enhanced US credibility. And with that, greater opportunity to promote regional efforts to stabilize Iraq and promote security. But the linkage is there, and failing to recognize it will only put the Administration and its allies at risk.

Obvious? Yes, but with hard numbers to validate the obvious.

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