Paul Pillar

What Arabs Really Think

In discussions in the United States about the Middle East, misperceptions abound regarding what Middle Easterners believe and what they want regarding their own region. Some of the misperceptions are repeated often enough that they become common wisdom and an accepted baseline for discussion about U.S. policy. There is, for example, the one about how Arabs around the Persian Gulf are supposedly hankering for a military strike against Iran's nuclear program; that one apparently stems from misreading a single line by a Saudi official. Then there is the idea that the Arab League's initial stance regarding outside intervention in Libya reflects broader popularity of NATO's military action.

One of the best correctives to mistaken notions of Arab sentiment is the annual polling of public opinion directed by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution. His most recent poll of Arab opinion, released this month, was based on interviews of 3,000 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. It is a carefully constructed poll, not designed to support a cause or prove a point. Some of the results speak directly to current policy debates.

Regarding that current preoccupation, the Iranian nuclear program, 35 percent of Arabs believe Iranian acquisition of weapons of mass destruction would be negative for the Middle East, but 64 percent nonetheless believe that Iran has a right to its nuclear program and that the international community should not pressure Iran to stop it. Partly underlying this result is a general sentiment toward Iran that does not seem as fearful as it is commonly made out to be. When respondents were asked to name two countries that pose the biggest threat to them, 18 percent named Iran. Well ahead of Iran were the United States (59 percent) and, at the top of the list, Israel (71 percent).

As for the Western intervention in Libya, there is no groundswell of support. Thirty-five percent said it was the right thing to do, but 46 percent believe it was the wrong thing to do.

A comparison of last year's results with this year's shows a bit of encouraging improvement in the standing of the United States, from the abyss to which it sank during the presidency of George W. Bush. A clear majority (59 percent) still hold unfavorable views of the United States, but those with favorable views rose from 10 percent in 2010 to 26 percent in 2011. A majority (52 percent) still say they are discouraged by the Obama administration's policy in the Middle East, but this is down from 65 percent in 2010.

Other questions disentangled these sentiments to highlight exactly what Arabs liked and disliked in what they saw coming from Washington. They like the administration's handling of the Arab Spring; when asked to name two countries that had played the most constructive role in the region the past few months, 24 percent named the United States. (The big winner in this category, as well as on other measures of the popularity of outside powers, was Turkey.) To a question that provided more options in assessing the Obama administration, a plurality (41 percent) said they have a favorable view of the president personally but “I don't think the American system will allow him to have a successful foreign policy.” When asked what was most disappointing about the Obama administration's performance over the past year, by far the dominant choice was “Palestine/Israel.” Consistent with that, when respondents were asked what two steps by the United States would most improve their view of the United States, the top choices were an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement (55 percent) and stopping aid to Israel (42 percent).

The poll strongly belied any notion that the Palestinian issue is not still a very strong and salient concern of people of the region. The poll also shows a conciliatory attitude among most Arabs coupled with realistic pessimism. Sixty-seven percent say they are prepared for peace with Israel involving a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. But most Arabs (53 percent) believe such a solution will never happen, and similar numbers (54 percent) believe the absence of a two-state solution will spell “intense conflict for years to come.”

Overall the results reveal a relatively mature and sophisticated separation of beliefs and predictions from sentiments and preferences. That is more than can be said of much American discussion of the Middle East, which reflects American politics more than realities in the region.