For several years, Shibley Telhami has been conducting public opinion polls in six Arabic countries, asking people about their views of, among other things, American diplomatic efforts and policies toward the Middle East. He then presented the results to White House officials shortly before Obama's speech. Telhami talks to us about some key findings.
Here Comes The Night
Artist: Andrew Pekler
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. For the past seven years he's conducted public opinion polls in six Arabic countries — Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This year, he asked more than 4,000 people to tell him, among other things, what they think about President Obama and American policy in the region. Last week, he met with White House officials to share his findings, some of which are reflected in the President's speech. Some of the new findings? Three quarters of those polled still see the U.S. and Israel as the two countries most dangerous to the region. Ending the Iraq War and resolving the Palestinian issue are the two top policy priorities and, according to the poll, Brand Obama, the President’s background, characterized by the emphasis he placed this week on his middle name and his Muslim roots, have caught the region's attention but not yet sold it on the American brand. Only concrete changes in policy, it seems, can do that. Shibley Telhami joins us from Washington. Welcome to the show.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: During the election and after, we read all about how Brand Obama, just his name, his Muslim father, his face and the fact that he was elected here, could potentially change attitudes towards Brand America, but clearly this poll does not support that idea.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I don't know why people were assuming that. I think there's no question that people were open to him. It wasn't even the fact that he had roots in Muslim culture. It was more that he was an African, very different from what they have typically assumed would become an American president. But even during the election campaign, April 2008, I conducted a poll in the Arab world, and while people believe that he is more likely to advance Middle East peace than Hillary Clinton and John McCain, his numbers weren't huge. Only 18 percent believe he is more likely to advance Middle East peace last year and 13 percent believe Clinton had a better chance, and a plurality believe that none of the candidates were likely to advance Middle East peace. So they're judging him already on less about who he is and more about what he's been saying and doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say, and I get it, that we have to pay attention to public opinion even in authoritarian countries, but there's been a lot of dispute whether or not you can [LAUGHS] really ascertain public opinion in those places, whether the citizens of those countries will actually respond honestly to polls.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: That's always a legitimate question, and we always are careful in the way we ask the questions. For example, when I ask a question like, whom among world leaders do you admire most, I ask the question, outside your own country. I don't want them to be in a position to have to mention their leaders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the Obama administration has sworn in a new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale. She's responsible for, quote, "America's engagement with the people of the world." That's from a State Department release.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given the dense web of relationships the U.S. has in the Middle East, what steps do you think she can take to begin to repair that relationship?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: One job for public diplomacy is to give advice on how to formulate the policy in a manner that will be heard the way it is intended to be heard. That's number one. Second, I would have her reexamine the role of the American supported media in the region. There's no indication that this media has been a particularly important arm of public diplomacy in the Middle East.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Remind the listeners what those outlets are.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: They're basically the television station, Al-Hurra, and it's watched, it has a viewership, but there is no indication it has much impact. I would put a lot of my resources into educational exchanges as much as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Get people over here so they can see what America is.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: If you ask the question, have you ever visited the U.S., have you ever studied in the U.S., have you interacted a lot with Americans? — if you said yes to any of these kind of questions, the likelihood that you’re going to have a favorable view of the U.S. increases dramatically. This is not because you know America and you love it. That’s nonsense. Obviously, America has its good and bad. It is just that if you know America, you see it as a normal place. And most of the attitudes that are so excessively negative are being based on a much narrower prism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems that the less people in the Arab world know about the United States, the more omnipotent [LAUGHS] they think America is, and that does not redound to our benefit. An alarming number of people still believe that 9/11 couldn't have happened unless we had a part in it.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Conspiracy theories are very prevalent. I see that, by the way, as a function of powerlessness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And a projection of our ultimate power.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Ultimate power. And if you look at the map and you look at particularly the Arab Middle East, where you have a lot of authoritarian governments, most of whom are supported by the U.S. government, and you look at the presence of America in the Middle East talking about the military footprint specifically — it does seem to them to be overwhelming. We're in Iraq in a big way. We're in Kuwait. We're in Bahrain. We're in the United Arab Emirates. We're in Qatar. We're almost every place in the Arab Gulf Region. We support Egypt in a big way. We support Jordan in a big way. We support the Palestinian Authority in a big way. We're the biggest backer of Israel. When you look at it from this macro perspective, you can see why people do have the impression that America is dominant in the region.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He’s also a non resident senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.