US popularity drop not a surprise in post-Bush world

A pollster finds that his recent data on the Arab world's perceptions of the US is often massaged and manipulated.

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Critics' reactions to polling results can sometimes be as interesting and disturbing as the results themselves.

In July Zogby International released the findings of a six-nation survey of Arab public opinion on topics ranging from the standing of the US two years after President Obama's celebrated Cairo University speech, to evolving Arab attitudes toward Iran, and the expectations created by the Arab Spring.

The essential findings shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone.

US favourable ratings across the Arab World are lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush Administration. Favourable attitudes toward Iran have plummeted in almost every Arab country since 2006. Expectations for the Arab Spring were high, but so too was regional nervousness.

However when the hard data of these findings ran up against the ideological convictions or political aspirations of some, their responses were both predictable and troubling. In some cases there were those who "cherry-picked" the findings they liked, while ignoring the rest, in an effort to buttress their ideological positions. And then there were those who, finding results with which they couldn't agree, decided that it was easier to "shoot" or at least try to discredit, the messenger.

It was in reaction to the findings about America's current standing that the "cherry pickers" had their day. Right-wing newspapers in the US could barely disguise their glee. Casting off the pretence of superpatriotism, they delighted in America's unfavourable ratings, making the unsupportable claim that the poll demonstrated that "Bush was better".

Our history of polling in the Arab world shows that the policies of the Bush administration deeply damaged the US image across the Middle East. Torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and the devastation of Gaza and Lebanon were unforgettable events that marked the Bush era. It was because Arabs expected that Mr Obama would change all of this that US ratings soared in 2009.

But with the realisation that the new president could not or would not be able to make those changes, US ratings have sharply dropped. Expectations raised and then let down can be quite devastating - but nowhere is there an Arab cry to "bring back Bush". The damage his policies did was so great that the Arab world and the US will be living with the consequences for a long time to come.

Strange reaction to the Iran findings came from the other side of the political spectrum. Unwilling to accept the fact that Arab attitudes toward Iran have been in decline since 2006, critics chose to take shots at the poll itself.

Why should it be so surprising that Arab attitudes toward Iran are in decline? In 2006 and 2008, these attitudes were largely being shaped in reaction to US and Israeli actions in the region. The situation in Iraq was at its bloody worst. And Israel's devastating assault on Lebanon was still taking its horrifying toll.

Back then, Iran was seen as standing in defiance of both Israel and the US, with both using bellicose language to denounce it - Bush going so far as to conflate Al Qaeda and Iran, even comparing Iran to the Soviet Union, as if the two were equal. As a result, Iran's standing was bound to rise among a deeply alienated and angry Arab population.

Much has changed since then: Turkey's rise as a regional challenger to Israel; the Iranian regime's internal disarray and brutal repression of Iran's own "Green Movement"; the Arab Spring creating a more self-confident mindset among the region's youth; concern with Iran's meddling in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain; and the fact that a distracted Washington has turned its attention somewhat away from Iran toward other regional concerns.

It is logical that Iran, judged by its own behaviour, would suffer a significant decline in support.

The Arab Spring results are also not surprising. In most countries, respondents displayed high expectations for the future. But in response to the question "is the Arab world better off or worse off following the uprising?" pluralities in almost every country said that "it was too early to tell".

Critics replied that the poll was "pouring cold water" on the Arab Spring, with some suggesting that these results served the goals of overthrown or discredited "regimes". In fact, these results were logical given the uncertainty that exists across the region. With Egypt and Tunisia struggling to get their economies and governance on track, and with events in Libya, Yemen, and Syria exacting a bloody toll, is that really surprising?

Which brings me back to my initial point about the various ways critics respond to poll numbers. It's always easier to pick the numbers with which you agree, and ignore the ones with which you don't agree, or to simply try to discredit the poll. But the danger in both approaches is that they ignore reality. When over 4,000 Arabs from several states are asked their views about critical issues of importance to the region and to peace, it is important that they be heard and understood.

For too long, Arabs have been ignored. Polling opens a window, letting Arab voices be heard. They should not be ignored.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute