WASHINGTON – Most Arabs continue to believe the American invasion of Iraq has brought more terrorism and less democracy to the Middle East and left Iraqis worse off than under Saddam Hussein, according to a poll released Friday by the University of Maryland College Park and Zogby International.
The majority of Arabs also do not believe the real objective behind the U.S. invasion was to spread democracy in the Middle East, the poll shows. This is the third year that adults in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were surveyed on their attitudes toward American foreign policy.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cautioned in a press briefing Friday that poll results are affected by many factors, so the results should not be treated as fact.
“The cry for freedom,” McCormack said, originated with people in the Middle East. “This is in the interest of the Iraqi people. It’s in the interest of Iraq’s neighbors. It’s in the interest of the entire region as well as the world.”
This year’s poll results show “a tiny bit of improvement” overall in Arab attitudes toward the U.S., said Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at UMCP, who designed the poll.
This year, 78 percent of Arabs said terrorism had risen in the region since the Iraq war, compared to 84 percent last year. And this year, 58 percent said there was less democracy in the region, compared to 64 percent last year.
However, improvements were not consistent across the board and some countries show more negative results, Telhami said. “I think the numbers are still hugely troubling,” he said.
Of the people polled, 80 percent said their attitudes were based on American policy in the Middle East and not on American values.
“I think the issue has never been American values,” said spokesman Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “American values, when they’re actually used, are respected in the Muslim world.”
Values like a free press, representative government and social justice are universal, Hooper said. But recent reports of the Pentagon secretly paying to run “puff pieces” in the Iraqi press showed the U.S. doesn’t always apply those values to the international arena, he said.
America’s unwillingness to prohibit all forms of torture and the ongoing controversy over treatment of detainees around the world have further tarnished its image, not just in the Muslim world but internationally, Hooper said.
The U.S. recently stepped up its public diplomacy efforts to counter “misperceptions” about its foreign policy, McCormack said. Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state, visited several Muslim countries on a goodwill tour in September.
But Jillian Schwedler, a UMCP politics professor, said altering Arab opinion would take more than “superficial PR” and “essentially entail changing American policy.”
The United States continues to support non-democratic regimes in the Middle East, she said, something that constantly came up when she conducted research in Jordan and Egypt. She was asked why her government, if it was so committed to democracy, propped up autocratic regimes, Schwedler said.
“A lot of the attention on how to improve the U.S. image in the region has been very much from a public relations perspective — that we’re not bad and we care about freedom,” Schwedler said.
Hooper isn’t convinced by such outreach either.
“I think the effort is very sincere, but unless it’s tied to policy, it’s not going to have the impact it could,” Hooper said.
Other poll findings show that about one in three Arabs sympathized with al-Qaida because of its willingness to confront the U.S., but only 7 percent of Arabs agreed with al-Qaida’s methods.
Western countries, led by France, topped the list of places Arabs would live and study if they had to choose a country other than their own. The U.S. ranked fourth.
French President Jacques Chirac’s defiance of the U.S. leading up to the Iraq war continues to resonate, Telhami said. Chirac led the list of world leaders Arabs most admire.
The poll was conducted in October with face-to-face interviews with 3,900 adults.
The margin of error ranged from 3.5 to 4.5 percent, depending on the country. Because of small sample size, the margin of error for the United Arab Emirates was 6.8 percent.
The university will hold a panel on Dec. 6 with Telhami, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim to discuss the findings. Robin Wright, diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, will moderate.
“I think the most significant finding is that . . . Iraq has become what I call the ‘prism of pain,'” Telhami said. “Arabs are looking at the world through the prism of Iraq. It’s not a good prism for the United States of America today.” -30-