Rami G. Khouri
International Herald Tribune (Opinion)
April 22, 2008 - 5:39pm

One of the paradoxes of the complex relationship between the Arab world and the United States relates to the rhetoric and reality of democratic values.

The Bush administration has made democracy promotion a central pillar of its foreign policy in the Middle East at the level of rhetoric, but in practice it pays little heed to behaving democratically in its interaction with the Arab people.

If democracy means the rule of the people, ideally a country's domestic and foreign policies should reflect the majority sentiments of its citizens.

The Arab world lacks credible democratic systems. Existing institutions like parliaments are controlled in a manner that reflects the will of small powerful elites that dominate the country, rather than accurately expressing public sentiment.

This control has been overcome to a large extent in recent years by good public opinion polls, conducted by local Arab groups as well as established international firms.

One of the major trends that has been repeatedly identified and reconfirmed in polls during the past decade has been the gap between the aims of American policies and Arab public perceptions of the United States.

Arab citizens, individually and collectively, do not have the means to translate their sentiments into policy. But in recent years they have enjoyed more and more opportunities to express their opinions, through mass media outlets and also in public opinion surveys.

One of the most important regular surveys over the past decade is the Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll, conducted by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland with the respected polling firm Zogby International.

The latest survey, conducted in March, covered a representative sample of over 4,000 people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (1.6 percent margin of error). It provides a good overview of Arab public opinion on key issues of the day, and deserves study every time it comes out.

This year's poll revealed strong and widespread opposition to American policies in the region. This is not particularly newsworthy, as this has been known for years, but it is particularly interesting for showing the substantial disdain that defines Washington's engagement with the Arab world.

I am not surprised that Bush's democracy-promotion strategy in our region has gotten nowhere, given that American policy tends to totally discount the will of the Arab people as it is expressed in repeated polls.

The three most important topics covered in the latest Telhami/Zogby poll in my view are about Iraq, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict, which are now pretty much synthesized into a single dynamic in the perceptions of many Arabs.

On Iraq, the poll showed that only 6 percent of Arabs polled believe that the American "surge" has worked. Over 61 percent believe that if the United States were to withdraw from Iraq, Iraqis would find a way to bridge their differences. A massive 81 percent of Arabs polled outside Iraq believe that the Iraqis are worse off than they were before the Iraq war.

Unlike many Arab governments that oppose Iran's nuclear program, Arab publics do not appear to see Iran as a major threat, the poll found. Most believe that Iran has the right to its nuclear program and do not support international pressure to force it to curtail its program.

A consistent element in Arab public opinion over the past half a century has been solidarity with the Palestinian people - at least at the level of rhetoric. The latest poll found an increase in the expressed importance of the Palestinian issue, with 86 percent of the public identifying it as being at least among the top three issues to them.

A majority of Arabs continues to support the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, though an increasing majority is pessimistic about its prospects.

Attitudes toward the United States remain highly critical, with 83 percent of the public viewing the United States unfavorably, and 70 percent expressing no confidence in the United States.

Nevertheless, the poll found once again that Arabs see the United States as among the top countries with freedom and democracy for their own people.

But a whopping 65 percent this year, as in 2006, said they do not believe that promoting democracy is a real American objective in this region.

Equally important, four out of five Arabs polled said they based their views on American policies in the region, not on their perceptions of American values.

When asked what two steps the U.S. government could take that would improve their view of the United States, 50 percent of respondents said brokering a fair Arab-Israeli peace; 46 percent said withdrawing troops from the Arabian Peninsula, and 44 percent said withdrawing troops from Iraq.

This data suggests that while large majorities of Arabs oppose and actively resist American policies, there are also middle grounds where the two could meet - especially democracy and Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

A missing element is leaders on both sides who are daring enough to put democratic values into practice by actually responding to the will of their people.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017