WASHINGTON – In contrast to some of their leaders, people across the Arab world prefer President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce Washington’s military footprint in the Middle East to the approach favoured by neo-conservatives and other U.S. hawks, according to the latest in a series of surveys of Arab public opinion released here Tuesday.
While the popular perception of U.S. policies in the region remains largely negative, the survey, which included six Arab countries and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, found a notable increase in Arab support for Obama compared to three years ago, as well as strong majorities who said that having “good relations with the United States” was important to their country.
Overall, Arab attitudes toward the U.S. are back roughly to where they were in 2009 shortly after Obama took office, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute (AAI) and director of Zogby Research Services, which conducted the poll.
Obama’s accession ended the eight-year reign of President George W. Bush (2001-2009), whose military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and nearly unconditional support for Israel brought U.S. favourability ratings in the region down to the single digits in most countries.
Among other findings, the poll found that Bush evoked the most negative views by far of the last four U.S. presidents in six of the seven countries covered by the survey.
“Overall, my takeaway is an uptick [for Obama and the United States],” Zogby told a forum at the Middle East Institute (MEI) where the survey results and an accompanying analysis, ‘Five Years After the Cairo Speech: How Arabs View President Obama and America’, were released.
The main lesson to be learned from the increase in positive sentiment toward Obama and the U.S., he suggested, was “the less damage you do, the better off you are.”
He cited the fact that Washington’s withdrawal from Iraq and its negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear programme were considered by respondents in all of the countries except Lebanon to be the two “most effective” efforts by the administration to address the challenges it faces in the Arab world.
The survey, which was based on interviews last month of representative samples (800-1,000 in each country) of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Palestine, produced a number of notable findings on a variety of other issues, several of which appeared to support Zogby’s observation.
Despite the repeated insistence by a number of Arab leaders – as well as Obama’s hawkish critics here – that the U.S. should do more militarily to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, significant majorities in all surveyed countries opposed any form of U.S. military engagement, including establishing “no-fly zones,” carrying out air strikes, or even supplying more advanced weapons to rebel forces.
Given a menu of six policy options for the U.S. to pursue in the three-year-old civil war in Syria from which they were asked to choose two, majorities ranging from 51 percent (UAE) to 82 percent (Morocco) in all seven countries opted for providing humanitarian relief to refugees.
Seven in ten Moroccan and Lebanese respondents chose “leave Syria alone”, as did 54 percent of Jordanians. The next most-popular option in the remaining countries – but most popular in Egypt – was “pressing the parties” to negotiate a transitional government.
The new survey found virtually no support for direct U.S. military intervention in any country, despite the fact that a just-released poll by the Pew Research Center showed that between six and seven out of ten respondents in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia hold a “very negative view” of Assad.
Nonetheless, the anti-Assad sentiment “doesn’t translate into Arabs wanting the United States to intervene directly or even provide aid to [the rebels],” said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here. “If I were an Obama adviser, I would use this poll to say that we [have been] right.”
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