WASHINGTON- While the past 15 months have brought a slight decline in anti-U.S. sentiment, public opinion in the Arab world about Washington's policies and intentions in the Middle East remains overwhelmingly negative and deeply sceptical, according to a major new survey released here Friday.
Most Arabs continue to believe the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq has harmed prospects for both stability and democratic development in the region, as well as the welfare of Iraqis themselves, according to survey's designer, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Studies at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"Iraq has become the new prism of pain through which Arabs are looking at the U.S. and the world," he said, noting that 80 percent of respondents said they based their views on U.S. "policies", rather than U.S. or western "values" or way of life.
The survey, the third in an annual series overseen by the polling firm Zogby International, was based on interviews with a total of 3,900 people in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates in the latter half of October. The results of a second survey conducted by Zogby at the same time are scheduled to be released by the Arab American Institute next week.
While the overall impression of the impact of the Iraq war remains overwhelmingly negative, the University of Maryland survey found a slight improvement in Arab perceptions compared to the last survey taken in the early summer of 2004, when anti-U.S. sentiment was at its height.
Thus, 81 percent of respondents said that the Iraq war had brought "less peace" (rather than "more peace") to the Middle East, compared to 92 percent in the 2004 survey. Similarly, 78 percent said the war had produced "more terrorism", compared to 84 percent in 2004; and 58 percent said it had produced "less democracy", compared to the 64 percent who made that assessment 15 months ago.
As to Iraq itself, 77 percent of respondents in the five countries said Iraqis were "worse off" as a result of the war, compared to 82 percent who said so in the summer of 2004. Only six percent said Iraqis were better off.
These relative improvements -- however modest -- were due less to a new appreciation for U.S. policies and intentions than to the effects of the simple passage of time on passions aroused by the invasion and some of the scandals, such as the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, that followed, according to Telhami.
The survey also found overwhelming scepticism in each country about U.S. intentions in Iraq and the region as a whole.
Asked to volunteer what they saw as the most important U.S. objectives in the Middle East, large majorities or respondents identified oil (76 percent); protection of Israel (68 percent); the "domination of the region" (63 percent), and the weakening of the Muslim world (59 percent), while small minorities mentioned more benign motives, such as preventing weapons of mass destruction (25 percent), peace and stability (8 percent), democracy, and human rights (6 percent each).
Asked specifically how they reacted to the Bush administration's claims to be actively promoting the spread of democracy in the region, about two out of every three respondents (ranging from 59 percent in Jordan to 78 percent in Egypt) told interviewers that they do not believe that democracy is Washington's real objective.
And of the 25 percent of respondents overall who accepted that democracy-promotion was indeed an "important objective" of the U.S. four in five said the U.S. is "going about it in the wrong way".
Hostility and distrust of the United States also showed up in other survey questions. Asked to name the two countries that posed the greatest threat to them, 70 percent of respondents cited Israel and 63 percent cited the United States. The next most frequently cited nation was Britain (11 percent), followed by Iran (6 percent).
Similarly, when asked to name the foreign leader they most disliked, two names dominated the answers -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (45 percent) and George W. Bush (30 percent). Bush's staunch ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, grabbed third place with three percent.
Conversely, French President Jacques Chirac, who opposed the war in Iraq, was the run-away choice for most-admired foreign leader. He was cited by 13 percent of respondents, followed by the late Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat (4 percent); and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (3 percent).
Chirac's position as the favoured world leader was confirmed in a number of other questions. Asked to assume a world in which there was only one superpower and to choose which country they would prefer, a plurality of 21 percent of respondents chose France, which was followed by China (13 percent), Germany, which also opposed the Iraq war, (10 percent); Pakistan (ten percent) Britain (seven percent); the U.S. (six percent); and Russia (five percent).
The thread running through these preferences, according to Telhami, was respondents' support for or identification with countries and people perceived as defying the United States.
In that regard, he pointed to another question designed to probe respondents' attitudes towards al Qaeda. Asked what they "sympathised with most" about the group, only 13 percent voiced approval either of al Qaeda's aim to create an Islamic state (6 percent) or its methods of operation (seven percent).
A majority of 56 percent, on the other hand, expressed admiration for the fact that it "confronts the U.S." (36 percent) or "stands up for Muslim causes" (20 percent). "They see (al Qaeda) as an instrument of anti-imperialism," noted Telhami.
The survey also found surprising support for Iran in its stand-off with the United States and other western countries over its nuclear programme. Sixty percent of all respondents said they opposed international pressure on Iran to curtail the programme, while only 21 percent said they approved. At the same time, 43 percent said they believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, compared to 32 percent who said they believe Tehran when it says it is merely conducting research for peaceful purposes.
In another setback to U.S. diplomacy, the survey found that al-Jazeera remains by far the most popular electronic source of international news across the region, particularly in the most-populous states -- Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. Overall, 45 percent of respondents said they watch al-Jazeera most often, while another 20 percent identified it as their second preferred source.
It was reported last week that Bush was dissuaded by Blair in April 2004 from bombing the al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar in retaliation for what the White House saw as its biased and damaging coverage of the U.S. assault on Fallujah.
Washington flatly denied the story, but the British government is prosecuting suspects who are believed to have leaked the contents of a memorandum recording the Bush-Blair meeting under the Official Secrets Act.
"Despite all its issues with the U.S., al-Jazeera is still number one," said Telhami who suggested that its performance was due primarily to its ability to express the opinions of its viewers.
©2005 IPS - Inter Press Service