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U.S. Middle East Policy

Iraq War Deepens Hostility to U.S. Policies in Arab World, Surveys Find

Jim Lobe
OneWorld US
July 26, 2004

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jul 26 ( – Anti-American sentiment – based primarily on U.S. policies, rather than on its values – has risen to new heights in the Arab world, according to two new surveys conducted in May in six countries, all of whose governments have been closely allied with Washington for at least several decades.

The two surveys, carried out by Zogby International in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) found, among other things, that President George W. Bush to be the second "least admired" global leader – after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – by the nearly 3,000 the respondents who took part in the survey in the first five countries.

They also found a strong, across-the-board rejection of the notion that Washington had undertaken the Iraq war for the reasons given by the Bush administration, least of all to bring democracy to Iraq and the rest of the Arab world.

Instead, overwhelming majorities of respondents, when asked to choose among eight possible motivations for the war, selected either "controlling oil" or "protecting Israel."

"What you have is a collapse of trust in U.S. intentions," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland who designed one of the two surveys.

The two surveys, which were carried out by Zogby International, took place in May, the month after the photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison became public, in major metropolitan areas in each of the countries. Each of the respondents, who represented a proportional cross-section of the different sectarian, religious and ethnic communities in each country, was interviewed by someone of the same gender, usually at their residence.

Many of the questions in both surveys had been asked before in previous versions in order to determine trends in Arab perceptions over time. While Telhami's survey, which focused on political and social issues, foreign policy, the media, a second one sponsored by the Arab-American Institute (AAI) was the latest in a series of six called "Impressions of America."

The findings showed a sharp decline in the way Arabs perceive the United States, and particularly U.S. policies in the Middle East compared to the last survey released in October, 2002, when those perceptions had already reached their nadir after the war in Afghanistan and as the administration was trying get international backing for strong action against Iraq.

"Favorable attitudes toward America have dropped precipitously over the past two years," said AAI Executive Director James Zogby, who is also John Zogby's brother.

Declines were most significant in Morocco, where the percentage of respondents who said their overall impression of the U.S. was favorable fell from 38 percent two years ago to 11 percent in May. A similar decline – from 34 percent to 15 percent, and from 15 percent to two percent – was also found in Jordan and Egypt (Washington's two biggest Arab aid recipients), respectively.

Even in Saudi Arabia, where 12 percent of the public in 2002 said they retained a favorable opinion of the United States, only four percent made that assessment in May, according to the AAI survey.

Contrary to the Bush administration's contention that anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world is based on hostility to U.S. values and "who we are," the poll found that almost all of the antagonism was based on the perception that U.S. policies in the Middle East were both anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.

For example, an average of between 40 percent and 65 percent of respondents in all six countries said they had favorable overall opinions of U.S. science and technology, freedom and democracy, movies and television, products, and education. While these findings marked declines in each category from 2002, the fact that these sectors are still seen far more favorably than U.S. policies suggested that Arabs continue to recognize differences between "who we are" and "what we do," Zogby suggested.

Asked an open-ended question about what they first think when they hear "America," pluralities in every country, except Lebanon and Jordan," volunteered the answer, "unfair" or "unjust" foreign policy. In Jordan, the most common answer was "imperialism."

Indeed, the ration of negative to positive responses, according to Zogby, was three to one in Lebanon and Egypt, four to one in Morocco, Jordan and the UAE, and 15 to one in Saudi Arabia.

Asked to volunteer the "worst thing" they thought about with respect to the United States, 80 percent of respondents cited foreign policy issues. The two most common answers were "unfair Middle East policy" and "murdering Arabs." The latter was the most frequently heard response in Morocco and Jordan.

Asked another open-ended question about what the United States could do to improve its image among Arabs, significant pluralities in each country called for Washington to either "stop supporting Israel" or "change Middle East policy." The next most frequent answer urged the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq.

Telhami's survey, which dealt more specifically with the impact of the Iraq war on Arab attitudes, painted a similarly dismal picture for U.S. policymakers.

Asked whether the recent transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government will bring positive change, more chaos or no real change at all, majorities in each country (except Egypt, which was not included in the survey) selected the last option, while about one in four respondents in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia chose "chaos."

More than four out of five respondents in all five countries said they considered the Iraqi people to be "worse off" as a result of the war, while about three in four said they believed the war would result in "more terrorism against the United States" rather than less.

Substantial majorities, ranging from 57 percent in Lebanon to 82 percent in Morocco, also said they believed the war had resulted in "less democracy" in the Arab world rather the same amount or more. Indeed, in no country did more than seven percent say they felt the war would bring "more democracy" to the region.

Asked to rank five of eight possible motivations for the war – four cited by the administration and four cited by critics – as Washington's most likely real motivations, Telhami's survey showed strongly negative views across the board.

Majorities ranging between61 percent (Jordan) and 88 percent (Morocco) in every country except, ironically Saudi Arabia (45 percent) named "controlling oil as one of the top motivations, along with "protecting Israel," an option that attracted from 44 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia to 82 percent of respondents in both Morocco and Lebanon. The next most highly rated likely motive – chosen by two-thirds of all respondents – was "weakening" or "dominating" the Muslim world.

As for the motivations put forward by the Bush administration – preventing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), ending Iraq oppression, bringing democracy, and ensuring regional peace and stability – none was rated as one of the five major motivations by a majority of all respondents, while "bringing democracy" received the lowest scores in each of the five countries surveyed.

Asked about their own sense of identity, pluralities in Jordan and Morocco and majorities in Saudi Arabia and UAE identifies themselves primarily as "Muslim," as opposed to a citizen of their country, an "Arab," or a "citizen of the world." This marked a significant rise in Islamic consciousness compared to previous surveys, according to Telhami who suggested that it may be evidence of a "backlash" against U.S. foreign policy which is seen as increasingly directed against "Muslims."

Asked to name the world leader they most admired outside their own country, the most frequently mentioned name was that of former Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nearly half of all Saudi respondents volunteered his name, another irony in light of their government's strong opposition to Nasser.

The next most cited leader was French President Jacques Chirac, probably the most visible of western leaders who was opposed to the Iraq war, followed by ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose name was cited by one of every five Jordanian respondents.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was named by 18 percent of respondents in UAE and seven percent of respondents in both Jordan and Morocco. (As a Saudi national, bin Laden was not accepted as a choice by Saudi respondents.)

The common denominator between all of the most admired individuals named by the respondents, according to Telhami, appeared to be their common opposition to the U.S. "They are people who are seen to have defied the United States of America," he said.

As to the least admired, Sharon received solid majorities reaching nearly two thirds in each country and a plurality of 49 percent in Saudi Arabia, where Bush came in a close second with 39 percent.

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