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Back to School
The Arab View
With Shibley Telhami
Brookings Institution

Friday, March 14, 2003; 10:30 a.m. ET

What is the current opinion of the Middle East toward the United States? How is the military buildup and possible strike on Iraq being viewed in the region? How do the views differ between countries?

Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and Nonresident Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution Shibley Telhami was online to discuss the outlook of the Arab world toward the U.S.

In addition to his work with the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, Telhami has been a council member for several foreign relation advisory committees such as the American Delegation of Israeli-Palestinian-American Anti-Incitement Committee and the committee of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. He has taught at several universities including Princeton University, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley where he received his doctorate in political science. He is author of a new book "The Stakes: America and the Middle East"

This discussion is part of the washingtonpost.com Brookings Forum on Iraq series.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Shibley Telhami: I have just conducted a public opinion survey in six Arab countries -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon -- polling people about their attitudes about war with Iraq and the U.S. among other issues. I welcome questions related to this matter.

Kansas City, Mo.: Would the establishment of a Palestinian state, lead towards peaceful attitudes towards the US/Israel, or is there a much broader antipathy towards both, that does not depend on resolving the Israeli/Palestinian issue.

Shibley Telhami: It is clear from the surveys that have been conducted and the history of the U.S. relationship to the Middle East that most Arabs see the United States largely through the prism of the Arab/Israeli issue. In my recent survey the vast majority of people ranked the Palestinian issue as either the top priority or among the top three priorities for them. It isn't that people necessarily like the Palestinian leadership or even that their governments have always tried to help the Palestinians; rather this issue has become an issue of identity to most Arabs in a somewhat similar matter to the way that the issue of Israel has become part and parcel of contemporary Jewish identity. It is thus no surprise that today on the verge of war with Iraq President Bush would announce an initiative to address the Arab/Israeli issue because the White House understands the importance of this issue psychologically in the Middle East. But resolving the Arab/Israeli issue may be a necessary condition for improving the U.S. relationship with the region but clearly not a sufficient one as there are many other issues at stake.

New Dehli, India: Won't Arab opinion of the United States always be negative? Why should the U.S. concern itself with the opinions of those who celebrated on September 11th?

Shibley Telhami: This is and interesting question because it supposes that people in the region would always resent America regardless of what America does. Actually this is not borne out by the history of the relationship. The United States was much loved in the region during the first half of the 20th century and beyond. Even since there have been ups and downs in Arab attitudes toward the U.S. In fact, France, which is clearly a Western country and was much disliked in the early 20th century because of its imperialist image, is now viewed very favorably in the region. In fact in the case of France which is clearly a Western country and was much disliked in the early 20th century because of its imperialist image is now viewed very favorably in the region. In the survey conducted at the end of February and the beginning of March, Jacques Chirac was cited as the most admired world leader in several Arab states.

Glenmont, Md.: Since Hussein has been responsible for so many Arab deaths, why does he have such strong support among Arabs? Is Arab hatred for America so strong that they would support such evil just to oppose us?

Shibley Telhami: Saddam Hussein is indeed a ruthless dictator who has been shown by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch to have been guilty of serious crimes against his own people. Many though not all in the Arab world understand this. But their attitudes about war with Iraq is driven by two issues. First, the double standards argument: on weapons of mass destruction they ask "why target Iraq but not North Korea?" and most have the perception that the US is specifically targeting Arab and Muslim countries. Even in Turkey, usually a reliable American ally, the most frequently cited reason for opposing war with Iraq is that it is an attack on a Muslim country. Second, they don't trust US intentions in the war and they don't believe the argument that the war is intended to help the Iraqi people. Just as the Israeli press is understandably focused on the pain of their own victims, especially of the suicide bombings, most Arabs are focused on the TV screens on the daily Palestinian victims in the West Bank and Gaza and that is the pain they most feel immediately. Thus they wonder why not care about that issue first. In our surveys the two most sighted perceived reasons in the Arab world for US policy toward Iraq are oil and Israel, not the objectives of peace and democracy. So ultimately it is really about trusting American intentions much more than liking of defending Saddam, though it must be said that the man still has, unfortunately, some supporters in the Arab world.

Arlington, Va.: As I understand it, the consensus Arab man-on-the-street opinion is that he wishes Saddam Hussein would be removed from power but does not feel that a US-led invasion is the proper vehicle for bringing this about.

Do you feel this is an accurate impression?

If yes, is there also a consensus Arab man-on-the-street opinion for how to bring this about by some other means?

Shibley Telhami: Actually I have not seen surveys specifically asking whether the removal of Saddam Hussein is a desirable outcome for most Arabs across the Arab world but it is fair to say that many hope that it would happen internally by the Iraqi people. As for Arab governments, they are caught in a bind. On the one hand they have come to believe that the only way to prevent war is to have Saddam removed from power or go into exile, which is why the Emir of the United Arab Emirates proposed the exile option. On the other hand most of these governments are frightened by the prospect that regime change would become an objective that is discussed by other states for they worry about being next. That is the current dilemma.

Reno, N.V.: It is my understanding that France and Germany have vested financial interests in Iraq and elsewhere -- and that their stance on a peaceful resolution to the "Iraq problem" is based primarily on this factor. Is this an accurate assessment? And, how do other Arab citizens view the motivations behind the Iraq conflict to come?

Thank you!

Shibley Telhami: There is no question that both France and Germany as well as Russia and ultimately Britain and the US have major potential interest in Iraq, especially in the oil sector and gaining contracts in Iraq's reconstruction. Nonetheless, I do not believe that these are the driving issues in the case. In fact, the early administration belief was that France's commercial interests would ultimately push it to support the UN because if Britain and the US went to war alone France would fear that Britain and the US would monopolize the oil and reconstruction contracts. This has not happened. I think it is important to look at this globally. At the level of the public the vast majority of the people around the world are opposed to the war and so are many states beyond France and Germany. Here I think the issue isn't so much about Iraq as such, I believe it is more a struggle for the shape of a new global order. Most of these states are worried that Iraq is only step one of a new US preemption policy that they fear much, and thus they decided to assert themselves early.

Wheaton, Md.: Sir, you indicate you have polled the populace of various Arab countries, and we hear much about the "Arab street." But in reality, the Arab populace does not choose its leaders, is that not true? In your view, how many leaders of Arab countries would still be leaders if their citizens got to vote in a free election?

Shibley Telhami: You are correct in pointing out the absence in electoral democracy in the Middle East and the uncertainty about the perceived legitimacy of leaders in these countries. In the surveys I have conducted I have asked questions pertaining to the most admired leaders outside their own countries. Among the most most cited leaders were Jacques Chirac, Nelson Mandela, Gamal Abd al Nasser (the popular Egyptian nationalist leader in the 1950s and 60s), Yasser Arafat, and Mahatma Gandhi. But it is interesting to find the following dilemma in the US: even as Bush declares that he seeks to spread democracy in the Middle East, he finds that the countries that are most willing to cooperate quietly are the authoritarian governments in the region who are able to withstand the public anger. In contrast in Turkey, a democratic state that has usually been a close ally, the US has had much difficulty gaining support because of its democratic system. In the process those authoritarian governments who go against the overwhelming opinion of their public to support US policy on Iraq and other issues can do so only by unleashing their security services to minimize a backlash against them. In the process, rather than spreading democracy, repression is perpetuated.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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