Good Will Hunting: Barack Obama (seen here with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan) was in Turkey earlier this month, gauging how far his approval in the Middle East might go. The verdict is in. It's not as high as he hoped. But it's an improvement on recent history. (Anatolian/Pool/Getty Images)
Four years ago Arab public opinion of the United States was at such a low ebb, according to a Brookings Institution survey, that, in an open-ended question about what country posed the biggest threat in the world, the United States topped the list, along with Israel, by a wide margin. When asked which of seven nations respondents would prefer to be the world's only superpower, France topped the list for 21% of respondents. China was second (13%). Only 6% wanted the United States.
The war in Iraq had done its damage in the Arab mind, as 81% of respondents thought the war had brought less peace and 78% thought it had brought more terrorism.
Brookings hasn't come out with a similar poll for Obama's first 100 days. But Dubai-based Real-Opinions has. The questions were different, but the sample somewhat broader. It includes Palestinians, Iranians and respondents from every Persian Gulf state, and a total of 2,789 respondents.
The results are only a bit more encouraging. On almost every question, a plurality of respondents mark "no change" as their answer. But Also in every case, very small minorities mark "worse" as their answer. Some key findings:
- Asked to rate American leadership on the global stage in Obama's 100 days, 35% said it had improved--though Lebanon, at 59%, and the United Arab Republic, at 52%, were the only two countries out of 19 where more than 50% of respondents saw improvements. Iran's response: 29% (that sample was the lowest: just seven people interviewed there, which makes it unrepresentative).
- Asked how Middle East stability has changed, 56% saw no change, just 20% saw improvements, and 14% saw matters getting worse (10% didn't know).
- Asked about how the overall opinion of the United States has changed under Obama, 42% saw an improvement (including 57% in that small sample from Iran and a susprising 50% in generally anti-American Yemen, 53% in Iraq, 39% in Jordan, where the Palestinian presence is significant, and 44% in the Palestinian Territories). Only 10% consider opinioon of the United States under Obama getting worse, and 30% see no change.
- On the "Palestinian and Israeli situation," nothing good: just 12% see an improvement under Obama's leadership, 21% see matters getting worse (including 30% among Palestinians), and 58% see no change, including 51% among Palestinians.
In the United States, Obama continues to enjoy significant approval. He's at 66% approval, just two points shy of the highest approval Ronald Reagan ever got (at his 100-day mark) and well above the approval of every president since Lyndon Johnson (80%) at this point in their first term.
Obama's approval in the Middle East isn't as strong, but it's still a significant change from the Bush years. Obama has capital and, if not outright love, at least a measure of trust that George W. Bush did not have in Mideastern eyes. It's an opening for Obama. It won't last, so it's up to Obama to seize the opportunity.
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