Posted on February 22, 1999 in Washington Watch

A new poll conducted for the Arab American Institute (AAI) shows that Americans are viewing several Arab states with increased favorability.

The poll, which was conducted by Zogby International of New York, also finds that only a minority of American voters considers U.S. Middle East policy to be “right and balanced.”

These results confirm a number of trends that have been developing during this decade. Americans are now somewhat more familiar with the Middle East. They are better able to differentiate amongst the Arab states, and are developing some positive attitudes toward many of them.

All of this has contributed to eroding Israel’s hegemony over thinking about the Middle East. It has further resulted in moving U.S. public opinion in the direction of supporting a more balanced U.S. – Middle East policy.

The AAI/Zogby poll asked 756 randomly selected likely U.S. voters to rate their attitudes toward a list of states. What appears below are the results ranked in order of the difference between the favorable and unfavorable rating given to each state. For comparison, the results of a 1995 poll that asked the same question appear alongside the 1999 results.

Country 1999 Favorable 1999 Unfavorable Difference Favorable/Unfavorable 1995 Favorable 1995 Unfavorable
Jordan 55 11 44 22 34
Israel 57.5 18 39.5 49 22
Japan 58 22 36 50 27
France 54 20 34 - -
Egypt 45 12.5 32.5 45 17
Mexico 49.5 33.5 16 44 27
Kuwait 41 28 13 35 39
Saudi Arabia 44 33.5 10.5 32 39
Russia 41 37 4 39 29
China 28 49 -21 31 39

What is striking about these results, is that the Arab states included in this survey (all considered to be friendly to the United States) each show an improvement in their overall rating. The most dramatic improvement was registered by Jordan and is most probably due to the extremely sympathetic press coverage given to the late King Hussein from the timed of his dramatic involvement in the Wye Plantation peace talks to his death earlier this month.

It appears that the jump in Jordan’s ranking was due more to positive press treatment of the King and the country of Jordan than to the simple fact that Jordan had concluded an agreement with Israel. Evidence for this can be found by noting that as late as April 1997, long after Jordan had signed a peace pact, King Hussein’s ratings in an AAI/Zogby poll were only 34 percent favorable and 31 percent unfavorable. Jordan’s 1995 country ratings, also taken in a post-peace context, were also negative.

In our more recent polling (AAI/Zogby January 1999), we found that the King’s ratings (before his eventful return to Jordan) had climbed to 55 percent favorable compared to 12 percent unfavorable–the best of any Middle East leader, and as we see in the current poll, the country of Jordan’s ratings are also the highest in the Middle East.

While Jordan’s significant positive press coverage can account for its favorability, the fact that Egypt was able to both maintain favorable ratings and bring down its unfavorable ratings while being subjected to repeated attacks in the U.S. press, is quite significant. Equally impressive are the substantial gains registered by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait–which, for the first time since we began polling in 1992, now show strong net positive ratings. In contrast, during the same period the ratings of a number of non-Middle East countries friendly to the United States (Mexico, Japan and Russia) dropped slightly.

This growing improvement in U.S. attitudes towards Arabs has had an impact on overall attitudes toward foreign policy. When asked if they felt that U.S. policy was too biased toward Israel 38.5 percent of the voters surveyed in the AAI/Zogby poll agreed. Only 20.5 percent agreed that U.S. policy was too biased toward the Arabs. On the other hand when asked if they felt that “U.S. policy in the Middle East was right and balanced” 55 percent said it was not. Only 28 percent agreed that it was–a two to one margin.

These results corresponded with other findings in recent AAI/Zogby polls. In an April 1998 poll, for example, we found that twice as many U.S. voters felt that U.S. policy leaned toward Israel as those who felt that it should “lean toward Israel”. In that same poll two-thirds of those surveyed felt that U.S. policy should “steer a middle course between Israel and the Palestinians”. In another question the same two-thirds felt that the United States “should apply pressure equally to Israel and the Palestinians.” It is important to note that all of this shift in attitudes is occurring while Israel retains a strong positive rating among U.S. voters. Voters appear to be able to distinguish between their displeasure with a country’s policy and U.S. policy toward that country and their overall attitude toward the country itself.

This same sense of discernment and commitment to balance can be found in the nearly identical responses given in 1995 and 1997 AAI/Zogby polls when voters were asked whether they supported a “U.S. role in maintaining and defending the security of Middle East allies”. The countries listed were Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. Despite having different attitudes toward each of these countries (rating Egypt and Israel very high in 1995 and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait much lower), those voters surveyed supported U.S. defense of each of the four countries by a nearly identical 50 percent to 30 percent margin. In fact their support for defending Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was even slightly higher than the others mentioned.

These changes are real and their importance should not be discounted. The result of this and other earlier polls demonstrate that Arab states have increasing political capital with U.S. public opinion. This capital can be used and politically exploited to bring benefits to Arab countries and to help further improve the U.S.-Arab relationship and to assist in moving U.S. policy. However, like all capital, if it is not used, it will be squandered and wasted.

(This AAI/Zogby International poll was conducted from February 14 to February 16, 1999. The attitudes of 756 randomly selected likely U.S. voters were sampled. The poll has a margin of error of +/-3.6 percent.)

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