Arab Opinions on Iraq Increasingly Sour

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Middle East expert Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland tells Scott Simon about a survey recently conducted of Arabs in the Persian Gulf region. Large numbers say Iraq is worse off since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

And the assessment of US victory in Iraq is going to hinge on that nation's ability to develop a democracy and the growth of democracy in the region. These are goals that the Bush administration has long annunciated and embraced. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in Iraq this month. Results of a recent poll suggest the war in Iraq and its aftermath may not have made American-style democracy more attractive to people in the region.

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat chair for peace and development at the University of Maryland. he conducted the poll with Zogby International. He joins us from Maryland.

Professor Telhami, thanks for being with us again.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): My pleasure.

SIMON: Now you conducted the poll in October in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates. Is that correct?

Prof. TELHAMI: That's correct.

SIMON: And what can you describe about the people who filled out questionnaires?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, these were representative samples. They're all face-to-face interviews. There were roughly about 3,900; in the large countries, there were roughly 800 each and smaller countries, 500. United Arab Emirates is a bit smaller. And we tried to get a demographically representative segment of the population so there's certainly a city bias but most Arabs do live in cities and we try to apply weights to be more representative of the population.

SIMON: And what'd they say about democracy?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, first, I think it's--one of the most important findings really is that Arabs now look at America in large part through the prism of Iraq. I call it the new prism of pain. And it's a disturbing prism. Because when you think about how they see Iraq, when you ask them `Do you think Iraqis are better off or worse off?,' the vast majority in every single country think Iraqis are today worse off than they were before the war. They don't see it as a positive. When you ask them `What has been the consequence of the war on--for them?,' they say there's been less democracy since the war, less peace and more terrorism. Very disturbing picture. When you ask them `What do you think motivates the US in the Middle East?,' they mostly think it's controlling oil, helping Israel, dominating the region, and dividing the Muslim world and very few, minor, very small percentage believe it's the spreading of democracy. So it's not that they don't want democracy, they just don't have faith in America's intention. They think the war has been disastrous on that score, and they think overall in the Middle East there's less democracy, not more.

SIMON: Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut made a speech this week and wrote and article in which he said the polls in Iraq had said that more people, I believe over 60 percent, thought their lives were improving, and would be better next year. Is that at odds with what you found?

Prof. TELHAMI: No, because I did not poll in Iraq, and I think it is a little bit harder to do it in Iraq, given what's happening there. And I wouldn't be surprised if many people in Iraq--in fact, do think they're better off. And the Shia, I think, many of them, feel they're better off, perhaps, most, and, I think, certainly, most of the Kurds. There's no question that most of the Sunnis don't feel that way. The real issue here really is what's the--how do people outside view it? Because we're thinking of Iraq as an inspiring model that is going to help change the region. That was the idea. And, clearly, it's not an inspiring model because the vast majority of the people in the Arab world outside Iraq see it as a negative, not a positive.

SIMON: Have to as you finally. Significant percentage of those polled, when asked who they wanted to be the world's superpower, said France. It was 20-some percent as--21 percent, I believe--as opposed to fewer than 10 percent for the United States. Now this was before--this was in October so this was before the rioting and--that overran many French cities. But what do you make of that?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, I don't expect it even to change now. I think it's, again, through the prism of Iraq, when you ask them `What are the two most threatening countries to you?,' and the list--only Israel, the United States and Britain appear and Iran is far below. It's all Iraq. When you ask them `Which countries would you want to be a superpower?,' they have France and they have Germany and they have China. Iraq is determining that, to a large extent--it's not the issue of democracy because when you ask them `Which countries do you think have most democracy and freedom for their people?,' all of the countries on that list are from the West, mostly from Europe, but also the US is there. So they have no illusions. They don't want China. They don't want the China model, they don't want the Pakistan model, which they--the Pakistan is a country they possibly could see as a superpower. So it's really all about politics and all through a disturbing prism of Iraq.

SIMON: Professor Telhami, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

SIMON: Time is now 18 minutes past the hour.

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