We are now approaching the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, which offered Arabs and Muslims around the world a new “engagement” with the United States. A year later, how do Arab publics see the results of that effort–and how much do their views about it really matter?
One thing is very clear: compared to former President George W. Bush, Obama’s personal popularity among most Arabs started out much higher and so far has generally stayed that way. The latest available survey data on this are from Pechter Middle East Polls, a young firm based in Princeton, New Jersey that partners with the most credible established local pollsters in each country. The results do vary considerably across the countries polled: Obama’s approval ratings today range from a high of 45 percent in Lebanon to a low of 30 percent in Iraq and Jordan.
More specifically, some of these recent polls asked about particular US policies, with intriguing results. Remarkably, asked for “the most positive thing the US could do” in the region, economic support tied statistically with Arab-Israel issues among Egyptians (36 percent each) and Saudis (30 and 27 percent). In Jordan, US policies on Iraq, Guantanamo, democracy promotion and overall relations with Muslims received ratings of at least “somewhat credible” from around 30 percent in April 2010–little changed from those ratings in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s speech in Cairo the previous spring. But the credibility of “US policy toward Arab-Israel peace” nearly doubled among Jordanians over the past year: from 21 percent right after the Cairo speech to 39 percent today.
Among West Bank/Gaza Palestinians, somewhat fewer (30 percent) say that the US seeks the creation of “an independent and viable Palestinian state,” according to a US-government sponsored survey taken by a Palestinian pollster in mid-March. And a mere 20 percent are even “somewhat satisfied” with Washington’s “current involvement in the Arab-Israel peace process”–though that figure is up modestly from the corresponding numbers from the end of Bush’s tenure (6 percent) or the end of Obama’s first year in office (10 percent).
On Iran, another key issue for US policy in the region today, Arab attitudes are mixed. Pechter polls from November 2009 and March-April 2010 show solidly negative popular views both of Iran and of Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq–including among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. The US push for tougher sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program garners clear majority support from Saudis (57 percent), but smaller percentages in Egypt (43), Jordan (41) or Lebanon (39). As of late 2009, a third of Saudis were actually willing to say they would support an American military strike against Iran’s nuclear program and a quarter of Egyptians said the same.
But how much does any of this matter? Not so much, according to the best available data. For one thing, the entire past decade’s worth of survey research proves that Arab attitudes toward other important issues are largely unrelated to their views of the United States. This includes their attitudes toward al-Qaeda, suicide bombing, terrorism in general and even terrorism specifically directed against American civilians. Arab popular sympathy for any of those actions plummeted precipitously in almost every society polled after 2003-04, even as attitudes toward the US, its policies and its president remained heavily negative.