Arab public opinion sours on Obama despite his outreach

WASHINGTON — Despite the imminent withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops from Iraq, Arab public opinion is largely negative toward President Barack Obama and his policies there, according to a poll released Thursday.

The 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, conducted by the University of Maryland in conjunction with Zogby International, found that Obama's handling of Iraq ranked as the No. 2 policy that Arabs remained disappointed in, with the No. 1 disappointment his approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

"It hasn't gotten worse; it's just that it hasn't gotten as much better as one would expect," the survey's principal investigator, Shibley Telhami, said about Arab opinion of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Overall, Arab opinion of Obama fell drastically from earlier surveys, with 62 percent saying they have a negative view of him, up from 23 percent shortly after he took office last year.

Arab views of Obama soured even though he's keeping his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, with the combat mission to end this month, and all residual forces to be out by the end of 2011.

The two previous annual surveys in this series had found Arabs saying that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the Arabian peninsula ranked in the top three U.S. steps that would most improve their view of the U.S.

The most pleasing Obama administration policy for Arabs was its tolerant attitude toward Islam, the poll found. Even so, results overall suggest that U.S. efforts to cultivate public favor in the Middle East, such as Obama's promise of a "new beginning" in Cairo in June 2009, are overshadowed by issues such as the Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May.

Telhami said that the U.S. treatment of the Israel/Palestine conflict may be contributing to negative Arab views of the U.S. role in Iraq, and is certainly a cause of the overall negative shift against Obama.

"What happens is most Arabs see American foreign policy through the prism of Israel/Palestine, and when they're not happy on that issue the top half looks empty," Telhami said. "So, in a way the anger on the Israel/Palestine issue exacerbates their views on the Iraq issue."

The survey also found that while an Arab majority thinks that Iran is trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, 77 percent say that Iran has a right to its nuclear program, and 57 percent say that a nuclear-armed Iran would be positive for the Middle East. In 2009, 53 percent of Arabs said that Iran had a right to its nuclear program, and 29 percent thought a nuclear Iran would have a positive impact on the Middle East.

"A lot of it is 'the enemy of my enemy (is my friend)' in relation to Iran," Telhami said.

The annual survey, which is in its ninth year, has an error margin of plus-or-minus 1.6 percentage points. It was administered to nearly 4,000 Arabs from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates from June 29 to July 20.


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