Arab confidence in Obama collapsing

In May I released a report for CNAS co-authored with Kristin Lord about the Obama administration's strategy of engagement which warned that "as the administration entered its second year, there was a palpable sense that the Obama bubble had deflated." We warned that Arab publics, in particular, had grown frustrated at Obama's perceived failure to deliver on the promise of the "new beginning" outlined in Cairo and had begun to lose hope in his ability to meaningfully change American policies towards the region. The findings of the annual survey of Arab public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami, released publicly today, offer stark evidence for this deflating bubble.  

Telhami reports that positive views of President Obama have dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to 20 percent today, with his negatives rising even further -- from 23 percent to 62 percent -- as fence-sitters waiting to see what he delivered render their verdict. Only 12 percent express favorable views of the United States, compared to 15 percent in the final year of the Bush administration.  Only 16 percent declare themselves hopeful about administration policies, compared to 51 percent last year, and a statistically insignificant 1 percent are pleased with the administration's policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sixty-three percent declare themselves discouraged, up from 15 percent. Deflating bubbles don't get illustrated much more starkly than this. While there are always problems with public opinion surveys in the Arab world, and results should be taken with caution, these findings are consistent with other recent surveys and with almost all other streams of evidence. I would argue that the results actually do not contradict last week's more optimistic reading of the administration's foreign policy -- but they do point to some significant and uncomfortable realities about the costs of failing to deliver meaningful change.  

The survey's findings suggest overwhelmingly that it is the administration's failures on the Israeli-Palestinian front which drove the collapse in Arab attitudes towards Obama. Sixty-one percent of the respondents say that this is the area in which they are most disappointed (Iraq, at 27 percent, is the only other issue which cracks double digits -- only one percent name "spreading democracy").  Only one percent say they are pleased with his policy. Fifty-four percent name an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as one of two things which would most improve their views of the United States (withdrawing from Iraq is second, at 45 percent , and stopping aid to Israel third at 43 percent ). The numbers of Arabs saying they are prepared for peace with Israel has risen -- to 86 percent -- but so has the number who say that Israel will not give up the occupied territories (from 45 percent to 56 percent ). Only 12 percent -- down from 25 percent last year -- say that Arabs should continue to fight even if there is a two-state peace agreement.  Should a tw0-state solution collapse, 57 percent expect intense conflict for years to come, 30% expect the status quo, and only ten percent expect  a one-state solution.

On the bright side, there are hints that Obama's approach to Islam is having some positive impact, despite the general displeasure with his foreign policy.  His attitudes towards Islam are by far the most popular part of his foreign policy, with 20 percent naming this as the policy they are most pleased with.  And even as Arab support for Obama's foreign policy has collapsed, there has been a significant drop in those with "very unfavorable" views of the United States-- from 64 percent in 2008 to 47 percent today. To the extent that those with more intense preferences are likely to be more supportive of terrorism, this suggests some real and enduring progress.  

The findings on Iran are also important. Most Arabs continue to think that Iran seeks nuclear weapons (55 percent ) rather than for peaceful purposes (37 percent ).  But 77 percent now say that Iran has the right to its nuclear program -- up from 53 percent in 2009.  Only 20 percent say that Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear program, down from 40 percent last year. And 57 percent now say that the effects on the region of Iran getting nuclear weapons would be positive -- up from 29 percent last year --- and only 21 percent say the effects would be negative.    Among those who say that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, there is greater support for international pressure:  68 percent of Jordanians, 50 percent of Saudis, 73 percent of Emiratis and 67 percent of Lebanese take that position (though only 16 percent of Egyptians do). But overall, there is very little support here for the notion that Arabs are secretly yearning for the United States to attack Iran. Really little.  

Oh, and in the non-surprising category, the survey reveals that Turkey really is increasingly popular -- second only to France on the question of which country is playing the most constructive role in the region.  Erdogan is now the most popular individual in the Middle East, with 39 percent ranking him first or second (20 percent first place). He beats out Ahmedenejad at 19 percent (12 percent first place) and Nasrallah (12 percent ) and everyone else by a wide margin. 

The results of  Telhami's survey, which strongly support the analysis in our America's Extended Hand report, should be sobering for supporters of the administration's foreign policy. The perceived failure to deliver meaningful change has taken its toll. Public opinion surveys are only one part of the story --- the goals of engagement are always broader than "moving the numbers" in opinion surveys, even if any administration would happily trumpet positive numbers, and deny the significance of bad numbers. If the administration begins to deliver -- on Israeli-Palestinian peace, on the withdrawal from Iraq, on engagement with Iran -- then the numbers will change. I'm more optimistic about the prospects of the administration delivering on some of those -- especially Iraq and Iran -- than are others. But since the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains what Telhami calls the "prism" through which Arabs evaluate American policy, that may not be enough.  

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Marc Lynch

Checking Walt's Stats

My esteemed colleague Steve Walt writes today that Obama is in trouble for 2012 in part because he's "0 for 4 on the big ticket items that have defined his foreign policy agenda."   I've got to disagree.  There may be no full-scale successes yet --- as if anybody thought Obama could solve the world's problems in a year and half --- but he's actually doing far better than Walt suggests.   Specifically, I'd largely agree with Walt on Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine, but both Iraq and Iran are more likely to be winners than losers.   Beyond that, though, Obama will gain in stature by comparison with the lunacy currently dominating the Republican political establishment --- which will likely only escalate as the political season develops and every GOP wannabe tries to outbid on the crazy.  

Here's my revised scorecard, following Walt's list:

1. Iraq.   Obama is on track to deliver on his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq --- something which voters might begin to notice next month when they discover that he has also met his promise to get down to 50,000 troops.  He's already almost there, without anyone really paying attention, and he has admirably resisted all pressure and temptation to relax the timeline in the face of the political paralysis of Iraq's political class.  What's more, Iraqi security forces and state institutions have proven quite robust during the extended political crisis, and the general security trends are not nearly as dire as the headlines would suggest.   Iraq should be a major positive for 2012 if Obama makes the case, as I'm sure he will:  he kept his promise on his signature policy initiative and it has worked out pretty well.  

And the GOP alternative is.... staying longer?  I don't see that as a political winner. 

2.  Iran.   While I would have liked to see more robust engagement back at the start of the administration, and less of a rush to the pressure track, the fact is that Iran today is far weaker and more isolated than it was when Obama took office.  He successfully built multilateral support for sanctions, and by all accounts the sanctions (including the additional unilateral ones) are starting to have a real effect.  He seems to have effectively convinced the Israelis to not jump the gun.   There's a long way to go until 2012, but Iran should look like a policy winner by then.  Pretty much the only two outcomes which could turn Iran into a disaster are either a successful nuclear test or a rash military strike by Israel or the U.S.  I don't think either is likely.   There's a chance for a major positive development, such as Ahmedenejad being driven from power and/or a major uranium exchange deal, but even the status quo of a weaker, isolated Iran will look pretty good. 

And the GOP alternative is... war?  I don't see that as a political winner. 

3.  Israel-Palestine.  OK, I'll go with Walt on this one.  I don't see this really going anywhere, direct talks or no direct talks.   I'm glad that the Gaza blockade has been somewhat eased, but that's probably not enough for a passing grade.  The real question here, to which I don't have an answer, is how salient this issue will be come 2012.    

4.   Afghanistan.   I'm also not feeling very good about this one.  But the one ray of hope I see is that David Petraeus will try to do in Afghanistan what he really did in Iraq, not what popular mythology says he did in Iraq:  cut deals with local forces and find a way to stabilize the situation just enough to be able to draw down and leave a reasonably stable state behind even if few of the deeper long-term political or institutional problems are solved.   I'm not optimistic, though, and agree that I don't see any way this is a political winner in 2012. 

But again, the Republican alternative is... what?  More troops for longer?  Or is it taking off the gloves and killing more people? Or is it time to get out of Obama's failed war?  I lose track. 

So my scoring is 2-4 on what Walt calls the signature issues --- and batting .500 gets you into the Hall of Fame.    But there's more -- the nuclear non-proliferation stuff is kind of a big deal, for example, and if START goes through could be a major accomplishment I have my doubts about the Republicans allowing anything at all  to go through the Senate if they can stop it, but that would only fuel the argument about GOP irresponsibility). I would balance that out with my dismay over the failure to close Guantanamo and other civil liberties issues, but in the end all those issues together are probably a wash.  Let's say that overall he's batting a bit over .300, with disappointing power numbers  -- not Hall of Fame, but pretty darned solid. 

What isn't, though, is the question of Islam.  Republicans seem to be hell-bent on competing over who can be the fiercest advocates of a clash of civilizations, the toughest on Muslims, the most outrageous in their bashing of Islam. That may please the fever swamps, but I think (or maybe just hope) that it will play extremely poorly with most Americans.   It's not just the clear national security imperative to build strong, positive relations with Muslims at home and abroad, and to avoid strengthening al-Qaeda's narrative of a clash of civilizations.  It's not just about the security needs in counter-terrorism, where the Muslim-Americans most offended by right-wing bigotry are the main bulwark against radicalization in their communities. It's that the right-wing campaigns are so deeply and fundamentally contrary to American values.   America is exceptional for its acceptance of faith in public life and for its tolerance of different religions within a common national identity.   While the GOP base may thrill at the escalating anti-Islamic rhetoric, most mainstream Americans will recoil when this hits prime time.    It may not look like it right now, but I think that the rising anti-Islamic trend on the right will backfire by highlighting its true extremism, if not downright lunacy.  

So I will have to respectfully disagree with Steve's coding of the dataset.   Obama gets far better marks on foreign policy, especially with regard to how it will play in the 2012 elections.   Of course a lot can happen between now and then, good and bad, but on current trends he should be looking pretty good. Especially in comparison to the alternative.  

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