Public opinion matters
I was asked by the Atlantic Council to appear at the launch of their “Middle East Strategy Task Force” (MEST) to present a report on how Arab public opinion views the challenges facing their region as well as their assessment of the role the United States can play in addressing these concerns. The goal of the MEST, according to co-chairs, former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright and former national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, will be to develop a long-term US strategy to assist the Middle East achieve stability and prosperity.
One might take a jaded view that this is just another election year effort by a Washington-based “think tank” to develop a policy paper that will, in the end, be nothing more than a restatement of conventional wisdom and existing policy. What, I believe, however, sets the Atlantic Council project apart is the stated resolve of the co-chairs to ground their work in the attitudes and needs of the Arab people. Instead of projecting policies developed in Washington for the people of the region, the MEST intends, as its starting point, to ascertain what the people of the region say they need and then craft policies that meld America’s interests and capacity with Arab aspirations.
As evidence of their seriousness, MEST has formed five working groups — two of which are headed by respected Arab American scholars and composed, in equal measure, of American, European, and Arab academics and analysts. The recommendations of the working groups will be considered in the task force’s final report.
It was impressive that the launch event itself began with a compelling “vox populi” video produced by Sky News Arabia featuring interviews with men and women from Tunis, Cairo, Beirut, and Ramallah. In turn, the interviewees spoke of their aspirations and frustrations for themselves and their countries
It was impressive that the launch event itself began with a compelling “vox populi” video produced by Sky News Arabia featuring interviews with men and women from Tunis, Cairo, Beirut, and Ramallah. In turn, the interviewees spoke of their aspirations and frustrations for themselves and their countries. That set the stage for the main part of the launch — a review of Arab public opinion.
I titled my presentation “Confounded, Lacking Confidence, and Conflicted”, three terms which I felt described Arab attitudes toward the traumatic changes that have rocked the region; the Arab loss of faith in the capacity of the United States to “do the right thing” when it comes to intervention in Arab affairs; and despite this, the continuing strong desire of the Arab public to maintain good relations with the United States.
Our polling shows that Arab opinion is largely confounded when it comes to assessing the region’s current crises. They know where they want to be, but they don’t know how to get there. Poll after poll of Egyptians, for example, demonstrates that they want jobs, improved educational opportunities, and a better health care system. They also rank ending corruption as an important concern. In short, they want a clean government that delivers services and meets their needs. What confounds them is: how to get there.
Iraqis want much the same from their government. Strong majorities of all Iraqi sub-groups reject ISIS and also express concern with growing Iranian influence. They do not want their country to fragment and they want the central government to represent and provide for the well-being of all Iraqis: but they do not know how to get there.
We find similar attitudes when the Arab World looks at Syria. In equal measure, majorities reject ISIS, al Qaeda, and the regime in Damascus. They also express deep concern with the prospect that Syria may fragment into sectarian entities. And because they do not support Western-led military intervention in Syria to defeat ISIS, the question remains: how to get from where they are to where they want to be.
An obvious concern that must be confronted by any American effort to consider policy options is the Arab publics’ conflicted attitude toward the United States. What comes through in our polling is the fact that while Arabs have strongly favourable views toward the American people, values, culture, and products, they deeply resent American policy toward the region. When we ask Arabs to name the “greatest threats to peace and stability” in their region, in every poll we have conducted during the past 15 years, the top ranked threats are the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “US interference in the Arab World”. This, of course, is to be expected, given the disastrous and failed war in Iraq and continued one-sided US support for Israel.
Iraqis want much the same from their government. Strong majorities of all Iraqi sub-groups reject ISIS and also express concern with growing Iranian influence. They do not want their country to fragment and they want the central government to represent and provide for the well-being of all Iraqis
When we ask Arabs, in repeated polls, to identify the areas where they feel the US can be most helpful, they will suggest aiding in job creation, and providing assistance to improve education and health care. But on the top of the list will also be “resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. In other instances, however, Arabs will tell us, point blank, “leave us alone”. This is the definition of being conflicted.
Even with this disturbing disconnect, Arabs do not want to write off the US. When we ask “how important is it that your country has good relations with the US”, substantial majorities in every country say that good relations are important. And yet there is obvious disappointment and continuing lack of trust and confidence in America’s ability to deliver. Arabs believe that the US has the capacity: to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, to help end the war in Syria, and to help make positive changes in their region. At the same time, while they are troubled by the fact that the US has not acted to effect any of these concerns, they also worry about the choices the US will make if it does choose to act.
I have long argued that public opinion matters. Any American effort to successfully engage the Arab World must listen to what Arabs are saying — even when we don’t like what we are hearing. And any effort to assist the region must be demand-driven. Given the lack of confidence, and the confounded and conflicted attitudes that prevail, finding solutions and projecting meaningful policy changes will be like threading a needle. But because MEST has made a consideration of Arab opinion the starting point of its effort, I am optimistic that this Albright/Hadley project may succeed, where others have failed.