The results of Zogby International's occasional "Arab Attitudes" polls are as predictable as snow in winter: every time, the results show the Arab world is unhappy with America.
Conducted by the Arab American Institute (AAI), Arab Attitudes 2011 reveals that "after improving with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, U.S. favorable ratings across the Arab world have plummeted. In most countries they are lower than at the end of the Bush Administration."
You read that right: America was more popular in the Arab world under George W. Bush than under Barack Obama. How can this be? This president was supposed to "restore" America's image in the world. Could it be a wave of disappointment over the unfulfilled promises of the much-vaunted 2009 Cairo speech? Or that America is simply the easiest scapegoat for all the problems in the Middle East?
All six countries polled show different results, but the underlying trend is the same: no matter who is President, no matter how many troops are in or out of the Middle East, America remains disliked. For example, Egypt's favorable attitude towards the US was 15% in 2002, 14% in 2005, 14% in 2006, 9% in 2008 and 5% in 2011. Similarly, Jordan had results of 34% in 2002, 33% in 2005, 5% in 2006, 16% in 2008 and 10% in 2011.
Conventional wisdom has blamed dashed hopes for the poor poll results, particularly after Obama's lofty rhetoric about spreading democracy without force, more rights for women, eased tensions between Palestinians and Israelis and the pull-out of all American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. That is undoubtedly a part of the reason, but there is more to the story.
Anyone can make an optimistic speech. Obama is an expert at it. But he has broken one of the cardinal rules of politics in his foreign policy: Always under-promise and over-deliver. Obama promised too much and has not delivered on anything tangible or substantive. He has not backed up words with actions -- and Arabs know it. The impression is that Americans will only step forward and help to achieve the goals laid out at Cairo when it suits them.
Those polled were offered a choice of five answers to the question: "If you had to choose one thing from the list below, which is the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East?" The "continuing occupation of Palestinian lands" was the top choice, followed by U.S. interference in the Arab world.
Assuming respondents are answering the questions truthfully (given that so many of them live in fear, this is very questionable), it is ironic that the top choice leads to anti-American sentiment. America is by far the largest donor to UNWRA (none of the six nations whose people were surveyed in the poll rank in the top 20) and supports Palestinian statehood.
On the second reason, wouldn't it have been interesting to add the word "selective" to "U.S. interference in the Arab world" to see if it made any difference? One of the greatest sources of outrage among Arabs is America's hypocrisy: the U.S. continues to coddle the Saudi royals; takes no stand against aggression in Bahrain, and refuses to help the people of Syria and Iran to liberate themselves; yet goes to war to remove Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. The deathbed conversion to oppose Hosni Mubarak in Egypt did not help matters, either. These inconsistencies do tremendous damage to America's reputation. Obama's Cairo speech now appears like an insincere public relations stunt, given that so little has been done – even by way of words – to encourage the reform movements in many Arab countries.
America's mistakes in the Middle East are too many to list. Unfortunately, this poll merely propagates the damaging myth that the U.S. is the source of many of the region's problems and that the U.S. is incapable of helping to resolve them. America and Israel, for Arab governments, continue to be a scapegoat for everything that is wrong. America cannot catch a break -- majorities in every country even said that the killing of Osama bin Laden makes them view the US less favorably.
The only way to improve America's reputation long term is to side consistently with reformers, and be active when needed -- particularly when asked.