How Arabs View The U.S., Obama

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Shibley Telhami, principal investigator for the annual Arab Public Opinion Poll, talks about what it shows about attitudes toward President Obama and his administration, optimism about U.S. foreign policy in the region and Iran's nuclear ambitions, among other topics. The poll surveyed respondents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.


We've invited Dr. Shibley Telhami to our studio to discuss another perspective on news from the Middle East: the view from the citizens of the Arab world. Dr. Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and the principal investigator for the annual Arab public opinion poll. The poll is conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International and surveys respondents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

And it's a real pleasure to have you back on the program and see you again.

Dr. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): It's always good to be here.

LYDEN: So what do you think are the most significant findings of this poll?

Dr. TELHAMI: There are a lot of things that are really striking about the poll. I mean, let's start with attitudes towards the U.S., and particularly President Obama and the administration. When I asked people if they're positive or negative about President Obama back in 2009, the surprise then was that a plurality were positive about him - 45 percent. Only 23 percent were somewhat negative about him. This year, only 20 percent identify President Obama positively and 62 percent identify him somewhat negatively.

You find the same kind of numbers when it comes to an assessment of optimism about American policy in the Middle East. Fifty-one percent in 2009, in the spring, after a few months of the administration, said they're optimistic. That was remarkable, given how typically negative people are about American foreign policy. Well, this year 63 percent say they're discouraged and only 16 percent say they're hopeful. So that is a huge transformation.

And it's clear when I ask them what is the issue that you're disappointed with most over the past year from the Obama administration. The single biggest issue by far, 61 percent, say the Palestine-Israel issue.

LYDEN: Another remarkable aspect of this poll is that a majority of the Arab public sees a nuclear-armed Iran as important for the Middle East. Explain why they feel that way.

Dr. TELHAMI: Well, you see, that's a fascinating angle, because when you look at Iran, a vast majority of the Arab public actually now thinks that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. So they believe that. But when you ask them whether the international community should pressure them to stop it, the vast majority believe that Iran should be allowed to have its nuclear program.

And even worse, when you ask them do you think it's better for the Middle East or worst for the Middle East if Iran should acquire nuclear weapons, now a majority in 2010 says that it would be better for the Middle East if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons. And that is a huge contrast from 2009, when only 29 percent said it would be better for the Middle East. So what happened...

LYDEN: And probably not something their leaders are thinking would be better.

Dr. TELHAMI: Absolutely. That's really an important distinction you make because there's no question that the Arab public and Arab governments are not of the same mind on Iran. No question. I think they have to pay attention to public opinion. Many of them are more concerned about Iran than the publics are.

But when you are, so what happened, you know, between 2009 and 2010 that you have such a transformation of public opinion on this being better for the Middle East, well, it's all a function of the anger with the U.S. - it's almost all. It's mostly the enemy of my enemy. There is no love for Iran in the Arab world. But when you ask them, identify the two countries that are most threatening to you personally, 88 percent say Israel and 77 percent say the U.S. and only about 10 percent say Iran.

And so when 2009, they were hopeful - 51 percent were hopeful - the administration was going to have a new policy that's going to succeed and bring about Arab-Israeli peace, they wanted to push Iran out a little bit, out of the game. Now that they're pessimistic and they don't see a prospect on the horizon, it is rewarding the enemies. And I think that's the dynamic that has taken place.

Not so much in embrace of Iran as much it is looking at the big picture of the threat as they see them and making their minds accordingly.

LYDEN: Dr. Shibley Telhami is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. Thank you for coming in.

Dr. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

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