American politicians have long been unpopular in the Middle East. Even before the release of the hugely offensive anti-Islamic film and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s unfortunate promise to kick the Palestinian issue “down the field”, people in North Africa and the Levant were disenchanted with the world’s only superpower.
A new poll released by Gallup on Monday – using data taken in the first half of 2012 – shows support for American leadership this year lower than at any point under US President Barack Obama. Only one in five persons in the Middle East approve of the United States’ leadership but almost three times that number disapprove, the poll finds.
The drop in average approval ratings was both continuous and quite steep, with the positive image of the first two Obama years, reflected in approval rates of 25 percent in 2009 and 2010, falling to just 20 percent in 2012.
The only country among 12 Middle Eastern nations where a majority voiced a positive view of the US leadership in the spring of 2012 was Libya. There is, therefore, more than a hint of irony that it was in the country’s second city Benghazi where the anti-film protests were most vociferous – with the US Ambassador being killed as the embassy was stormed.
The Iranians were least appreciative of America in their stated opinions, with just an 8 percent approval rate. Palestinians were the most outspoken in their opposition – while 18 percent said they approved of the US job on leadership, roughly three in four Palestinians disapproved. In Egypt, where President Obama tried to open a new chapter on Arab-American relations with his June 2009 “New Beginning” speech, two out of three respondents disapproved of his leadership.
Approval ratings of American leaders in the Middle East are lower than those in Asia, Europe, and Africa and in 2011 came out 24 percentage points below global medians for that question in Gallup research. The low intensity of trade between the US and the region (no Gulf countries were shown in the poll) and the friend-of-my-enemy problem in the Palestinian issue go some way toward explaining why the US struggles for support in the region.
But, as we approach the end of Obama’s first term, it is worth comparing Arab views on the US today with previous administrations. The George W. Bush presidency, its fiasco in Iraq and its parallel inability to deal with the Palestinian plight meant Obama had an easy act to follow. It is little surprise that the year 2008 was a low point in Arab approval rates of US leadership, with just 15 percent support.
So Obama’s relative rise in popularity is hardly to be celebrated, and may simply be because opinions could hardly have gotten worse. They spiked after the 2008 election because Obama back then spelt change and promise to people worldwide.
How much the fluctuations in Arab perceptions of the US between 2010 and 2012 were correlated to the developments that erupted into the Arab Spring from January 2011 is a question that is hard to answer, given that the uprisings surprised its many fathers and partisans as much it did the world. Therefore no reliable polling research into the exact opinions and attitudes expressed in the Arab Spring could have been conducted freely prior to the uprisings.
The current negative outlook for Arab-US relations and a possible worsening of communication is reinforced by the slide in approval rates since that expectation-driven high in 2008. But it appears from the significant fluctuations in views of Arab populations that the disapproval of Arab populations toward American leadership is more related to divergent interests than an expression of a conflict of identities and clash of civilizations.
Unlike in 2008, when Obama came to power amid a storm of international good will, this year’s expectations for a post-election improvement in Arab-American relationships will probably be best kept very modest for the incumbent and even more so for the challenger.