Posted on August 09, 2004 in Washington Watch

Two years ago, I wrote an article entitled, “It’s the Policy, Stupid.” Zogby International had just completed two major polls in several Arab countries. We found that Arabs had very positive attitudes toward American science and technology, freedom and democracy, products, people, education, movies and television. What drove down the overall attitudes towards America, however, was US policy “toward the Arabs” and Palestinians.

The article and the poll found a receptive audience. My brother, John Zogby, and I addressed the Department of State, testified before Congress, and lectured on the results before distinguished audiences across the US. What we provided was an antidote to the factious claim made by some who had argued that Arab displeasure with the US was based on “cultural differences,” or “hatred of American values.”

What our polling data showed, quite simply, was that Arabs judged America by how they saw America treating them. It was clear that Arabs, in fact, respected American values-but they did not see American policy reflecting those values. This became even clearer when our poll asked our Arab respondents to name the first thought that came to mind when they heard “America.” They told us “its unfair policies.” And when we asked, “what the should the US do to improve its relationship with the Arab World,” responses focused on the need for the US to change its policies to be “more just” and “less biased.”

In no case did our respondents mention American values or products.

We have just completed a follow-up study in six Arab countries to measure what changes in attitudes may have occurred in the past two years and to identify the factors that may have accounted for these changes.

The results are disturbing.

Overall, favorable ratings for the US have declined in the past two years. In some countries, the change has been dramatic. In 2002 for example, 38% of Moroccans had a favorable view of the US. In 2004 only 11% held such a view. Similar results are in evidence in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Even more disturbing is the fact that while Arab attitudes toward American values, people and products remain mostly favorable; these too have declined in the past two years.

All of this continues to be driven by US policy. Arab attitudes about American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are extremely low. But these negative attitudes have now been eclipsed by an even greater Arab rejection of US policy toward Iraq. In Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, America’s Iraq policy rates a less that one percent favorable rating. In Jordan, it received a two percent rating, while in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), only four percent of the public approve of US policy in Iraq.

What was surprising was that in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the UAE, anger over America’s treatment of Arabs and Muslims appeared to be an even more significant factor than Iraq and Palestine in determining overall negative attitudes toward the US.

In responses given to open-ended questions, the role that anger with US policy plays in this growing Arab disenchantment with America becomes even clearer. When asked to identify the “first thought that comes to mind,” the “best and worst things they could say about America,” and “what America should do to change its image in the Arab World,” the principal responses all focused on policy issues. “Stop supporting Israel,” “Change your Middle East policy,” and “Stop killing Arabs” were among the most common responses.

It is interesting to note that the only time that values factored into the discussion was when Arab respondents urged America to adopt a more values-driven foreign policy, i.e., “show more respect,” “apply justice,” or “work harder for peace.”

What our data demonstrates is what most of the world and a great number of Americans already know: Policy matters. What is disturbing, however, is the degree to which US policy makers refuse to acknowledge the role that policy plays in this widening gap that is separating America from the Arab World. The President and leading lawmakers continue to obfuscate this fact, insisting that the problem lies elsewhere. Commissions have been formed to study the situation, but have been instructed to rule out a priori any discussion of “policy as the problem.”

Even the 9/11 Commission, in its otherwise thoughtful treatment of issues related to this tragedy, skirted this problem by noting, “right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world. That does not mean that US choices have been wrong. It means those choices must be integrated with America’s message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world.”

In fact, it is the Commission’s findings that are right and wrong. They are right to observe that America’s policy is at the root of Arab discontent, but they are wrong to assume that a “message of opportunity” can change that dynamic. What our 2002 and 2004 polls show is that Arabs judge America not by what it says, but by what it does, and in this regard, it is still “the policy, stupid,” that is the problem.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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