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U.S.–Arab Relations Broken After Iraq War, Scholar Reports
Photo by Jonathan Friedlander

U.S.–Arab Relations Broken After Iraq War, Scholar Reports

University of Maryland and Brookings Scholar Telhami says growing opposition to U.S. foreign policy is not the worst news for the superpower.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

If you're a clever government, what you do is you give [Bush] something to claim you as a credit. You give him just enough ... with the notion that, the minute he claims you as a credit, it's over, because he can't take you as a debit the next morning.

When citizens of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are asked why the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, they gravitate in roughly equal numbers towards three explanations. Two of these—to secure oil reserves and to support Israel—are no surprise at all, according to Shibley Telhami, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

The surprise, a worrisome one, is that most people from the six Arab countries also say that the United States acted in order to weaken the Muslim world, Telhami explained Oct. 18 at a public talk at UCLA sponsored by the International Institute and its Center for Near Eastern Studies. Respondents to the 2004 survey crafted by Telhami in cooperation with polling firm Zogby International chose the three explanations from a laundry list of possibilities. (Results of the yearly survey's 2005 installment will be available in November, Telhami said.)

Telhami added that a perception that America has taken up arms against Islam also emerges in polling data collected in the non-Arab Muslim world since the invasion of Iraq. While cautioning that there was too little data to make long-range comparisons, Telhami said that he observes increased emphasis in Arab countries on religious identity, as opposed, for example, to national and ethnic identity. Muslim identity came first in four of the six countries in 2004.

However, these shifts have not been accompanied by a significant rise in citizens' desire to see the clergy play a stronger role in government, Telhami said. In fact, on some issues, survey respondents in the six countries were more socially progressive than Telhami himself imagined. In 2004, a plurality of Saudi men and a large majority of Saudi women expressed a desire for women to work outside of the home, he said.

Collapse in Trust

Telhami described the broad perception of U.S. hostility towards the Muslim world as one aspect of an even larger problem: a collapse in Arab confidence in the United States. Prior to the failure of U.S.-backed Israeli–Palestinian peace talks mediated by President Clinton in 2000, more than 60 percent of Saudis polled by the U.S. State Department affirmed that they had "confidence" in the United States, according to Telhami.

"I think that that number began collapsing immediately, as tested in these surveys, after the collapse of the Arab–Israeli negotiations in 2000. By the fall it had dropped almost 20 percentage points, and by the spring [of 2001] it had gone down another 15 percentage points. And then it dramatically dropped after 9/11, and now it's in the single digits."

Telhami argued that questions about confidence are key. Affirmative responses reflect not so much agreement on issues as the belief that the other party's interests and goals are knowable and perhaps partly reconcilable with one's own. Without confidence, negotiation makes little sense.

Not Inspiring

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's post-invasion insistence on democracy in the Middle East as the true motive for war rings hollow in the Arab world. The administration's related demands on regional governments have actually set back democratic reform, Telhami said. Survey respondents in 2004 said that the Middle East was less democratic after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq than before.

Straying from his survey data, Telhami said that Arab governments have realized that concessions on issues unrelated to democracy will often satisfy the United States. Take Libya's pledge to give up banned weapons. Even better, slight motions towards democratic reform—just enough and no more—can win praise from Washington and remove the pressure for further steps, Telhami said. Take Egypt's flawed, though technically competitive, September presidential election.

Because President Bush made the spread of democracy the agenda for his second term, "he needs to show that it's working," Telhami said. Sensing this, Arab governments give in until the administration cites progress and they have "won the game."

"If you're a clever government, what you do is you give [Bush] something to claim you as a credit. You give him just enough ... with the notion that, the minute he claims you as a credit, it's over, because he can't take you as a debit the next morning."

Center for Near Eastern Studies