The Middle East Channel

Diminishing goodwill for U.S. Middle East policy

A few months back I had a quick exchange with President Obama about the U.S. standing in the Arab World. When I mentioned that we would be conducting a poll to assess Arab attitudes two years after his Cairo speech, he responded that he expected that the ratings would be quite low and would remain low until the U.S. could help find a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Well, the results are in, and the President was right. In our survey of over 4,000 Arabs from six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), we found that favorable attitudes toward the U.S. had declined sharply since our last poll (which had been conducted in 2009 after Obama's first 100 days in office).

Back then, Arabs were hopeful that the new President would bring needed change to the U.S.-Arab relationship and the early steps taken by his administration only served to reinforce this view. As a result, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. climbed significantly from Bush-era lows. But as our respondents made clear in this year's survey, those expectations have not been met and U.S. favorability ratings, in most Arab countries, have now fallen to levels lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration. In Morocco, for example, positive attitudes toward the United States went from 26 percent in 2008 to a high 55 percent in 2009. Today, they have fallen to 12 percent. The story was much the same in Egypt, where the U.S. rating went from 9 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2009, but has now plummeted to 5 percent in this year's survey.

A review of the poll's other results makes it clear that the continuing occupation of Palestinian land is seen by most Arabs as both the main "obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East" and "the most important issue for the U.S. to address in order to improve its ties with the Arab World". That Palestine trumps all of the other issues measured in the survey throws cold water on the wishful thinking of some analysts in the U.S. and Israel who want to imagine that, in the context of this "Arab Spring", Arabs now feel "that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not as central to their lives as they were led to believe."

What our respondents tell us is the second highest ranking "obstacle to peace and stability" is "U.S. interference in the Arab World", which explains why the U.S. role in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya is neither viewed favorably in most countries, nor is it seen as improving Arab attitudes toward America. In fact, when presented with several countries (e.g. Turkey, Iran, France, China, the U.S. etc.) and asked to evaluate whether or not each of them play a constructive role "in promoting peace and stability in the Arab World" eight in 10 Arabs give a negative assessment to the U.S. role -- rating it significantly lower than France, Turkey, China, and, in four of six Arab countries, even lower than Iran!

All of this might have been expected, as it was by the President, but it is still sobering news that should send a strong signal to all Americans and should serve as a check on the reckless behavior of some lawmakers. For example, when Congress invites the Prime Minister of Israel to give an address that challenges and insults the President -- and then gives the foreign leader repeated standing ovations -- they are telling Arabs that America can't and won't play a constructive peace-making role. And when Congress continues to obstruct diplomacy and supports bills cutting much needed assistance programs to the Palestinians, Lebanon, and Egypt, they are sending Arabs the wrong message at the wrong time. And when neoconservatives continue to argue for a more muscular Middle East foreign policy, urging the White House to use force or to make more demands on various Arab parties, they are blind to the realities of the region and are treading on dangerous ground.

To his credit, the President understands the dilemma America confronts across the Arab World. He began his term in office with the right intentions and sent signals he would move in the right direction. But, as I have noted, on Inauguration Day Barack Obama did not receive a magic wand. Instead, he was handed the shovel that George W. Bush had been using to dig deep holes all over the Middle East. Getting out of those holes has been harder than he imagined. In addition to confronting the worst domestic economic crisis in generations, the President had to face down two failed wars, an incorrigible and manipulative Israeli leader, a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian polity, and a wary but hopeful (maybe too hopeful) world that expected him to deliver on promised change. If that weren't enough, the President was confronted from day one by a deeply partisan Washington, in which a unified Republican opposition behaved as if they wanted nothing more than to see him fail.

If anything, the results of this latest poll of Arab opinion demonstrates how precarious the position of the United States is in the Middle East and how important it has become for American policy makers to pay attention to what Arabs are saying. Some may play politics with critical Middle East issues and gloat at their success at having stymied the President's efforts to make peace and restore America's image in the region. But as the results of this survey make clear, their success has come at a price; one that is being paid by the entire country.         

Dr. James Zogby is Founder and President of the Arab American Institute 

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The Middle East Channel

The other side of radicalization in Bahrain

In a July 6 interview with Egyptian journalists carried in the Al-Ahram daily, a leading Bahraini revealed that his country's February uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," the latter aiming "to draw a new map" of the region. "More important than talking about the differences between the U.S. and Iran," he insisted, are "their shared interests in various matters that take aim at the Arab welfare."

Who is this Bahraini conspiracy theorist? A radical Arab nationalist, perhaps? Or a leader of the popular Sunni counter-revolution that mobilized successfully against the Shia-led revolt? Not exactly. In fact, he is none other than Marshall Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa: Minister of Defense, Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, and, as his name indicates, a prominent member of Bahrain's royal family. His outburst decrying American duplicity in Bahrain is but the latest in a string of similar incidents and public accusations that once more raise the question of political radicalization in Bahrain. But this time, in contrast to the usual narrative, the radicalization is not emanating from the country's Shia majority.

The rise of this anti-American narrative among Bahrain's pro-government Sunnis can be traced back, ironically, to a March 7 protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Manama organized by Shia political activists. Those present condemned the muted if not outright hostile American response to their then still-hopeful popular revolution. A seemingly trivial detail of that demonstration -- a box of doughnuts reportedly brought to the protesters by the embassy's then-Political Affairs Officer, who had ventured outside to hear their complaints -- provided fodder some weeks later for a widely-circulated online article portraying the official as a veritable enemy combatant. Photographs of him and his family, along with his local address and phone number, would soon appear on militant Salafi forums, where readers were urged to take action against this Hezbollah operative. Within a few weeks, the U.S. embassy had a new Political Affairs Officer; the old one had been very quietly sent home. 

Around the same time, Bahrain's most hawkish government newspaper, Al-Watan, ran a series of editorials detailing the U.S.'s alleged duplicitous dealings in Bahrain. Titled "Washington and the Sunnis of Bahrain," the articles chronicled a wide range of U.S. policies and institutions meant to undermine Sunni rule of Bahrain and of the Arab Gulf more generally. These include the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, the National Democratic Institute, Human Rights Watch, and the (subsequently "reorganized") American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain. 

In late June, this series gave way to a new and even less-subtly titled one: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain," which draws on the president's Muslim name to portray not only a country whose strategic interests have led it to abandon the Arab Gulf to Iran, but a U.S. president who harbors personal ideological sympathies for the Shia. Spanning nearly a dozen issues from June 26 to July 6, the articles ended only after an official protest by the U.S. embassy.

This is more than a mere media campaign. Bahrain's largest Shia opposition society, al-Wifaq, held a festival last weekend to reiterate its demand for an elected government to be submitted at this week's sessions of an ongoing National Dialogue conference. Loyalist Sunnis countered with a rally of their own, one aimed not at domestic policy but at ending U.S. "interference" in Bahraini affairs. A 15-foot-wide banner hung directly behind the speakers' podium bore the flags of "The Conspirators Against the Arab Gulf," -- the United States, al-Wifaq, Hezbollah, and Iran. Below it was the message: "Bahrain of the Al Khalifa: God Save Bahrain from the Traitors."

Rising Sunni cleric Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud told listeners that, among other things, it is the United States that has divided Bahrain into Sunnis and Shia, just as it had done in Iraq. "If the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say," he continued. "And if the regime needs a ... rally ... in front of the U.S. embassy, the people are ready." And then the crescendo: "And if the U.S. is threatening to withdraw its troops and the facilities it gives to Bahrain, then to hell with these troops and facilities. We are ready to live in famine to protect our dignity."  This is from a man who just months ago led pro-government rallies that attracted several hundred thousand Bahraini Sunnis.

This anti-U.S. mobilization by regime supporters in Bahrain is ominous, and of course ironic inasmuch as the Obama administration's lukewarm response to the February protests was premised in large part on the assumption that a Bahrain controlled by the Shia would be a Bahrain without the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But unfortunately the story only gets worse. 

Underlying this popular sentiment is a still more troubling cause: a longstanding political dispute dividing members of Bahrain's royal family that the current crisis has brought to a head. Post-February, Bahrain has seen the empowerment of the less compromising factions of the ruling Khalifa family -- in particular its prime minister of 40 years -- at the expense of the more moderate king and crown prince. The former holds precariously to power; the latter, despite concerted U.S. efforts to revive his political standing highlighted by a June 7 meeting in Washington with President Obama, has been all but banished entirely following his failure to broker a deal to end protests in the early days of the crisis.

What is most remarkable about Mahmud's exhortation of fellow Sunnis is not his threat directed at the United States, but the threat directed at his own government. His suggestion that if "the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say" is no less than an explicit challenge to Bahrain's ruling faction: either do what is necessary to guarantee the country's interests, or get out of the way of those who will.

That King Hamad has yet to put a stop to either strand of rhetoric -- the embarrassing months-long harassment of the American embassy and president, or the overt criticism of his own political handling of Bahrain's crisis -- evidences a fear of losing what precious little support he still enjoys from among the country's significant Sunni Islamic constituency. Indeed, rather than move to silence these radical voices, King Hamad has perhaps out of necessity legitimized them. On June 21, he went so far as to pay a personal visit to the home of Mahmud where, according to Bahrain's state news agency, he "lauded [him] for his efforts to serve his nation and religion."

When protests in Bahrain erupted in February, the primary storyline featured a friendly Sunni government under siege by a pro-Iranian Shia majority, an inherently anti-Western faction feared to have been only further radicalized by the sweeping security crackdown necessary to quell the unrest.  For U.S. policymakers, having now endured months of scrutiny for their unwavering support of the Bahraini government while backing pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere, the irony of the recent anti-American turn by Sunni Islamists must appear little humorous, particularly as the movement has been enabled if not cultivated outright by pragmatic members of the very family whose rule the U.S. has worked so steadfastly to preserve.

Justin Gengler is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University in Michigan and former Fulbright Fellow to Bahrain. He blogs at Religion and Politics in Bahrain and is on Twitter at @BHPoliticsBlog.

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