The past month, during which I have had the opportunity to interact with thousands of Americans across the United States, has also been one of the most difficult and volatile in the American-Middle Eastern relationship. This has reflected the lively, occasionally violent, reactions to the anti-Islamic film that took place across the world, the exaggerated rhetoric of the American presidential elections, and the spirited, provocative rhetoric at the United Nations by Iranian and Israeli leaders. Passions are high all around, as Arabs, Americans, Turks, Israelis and Iranians all struggle with sharp rhetoric, violence, death, deep antagonisms and ongoing or threatened wars. The mass media and political classes everywhere tend to focus on the negatives that they see in others, giving the impression that we are on the verge of a catastrophic global war due to inflamed emotions and feelings of existential vulnerability by many of these parties.
The reality, fortunately, seems less frightening, as I have always sensed from my routine life and work in the Arab world, and as I am discovering from my extensive discussions with Americans this month. The many Americans I have engaged in conversations seem more realistic and sober than ever before about Middle Eastern issues and peoples. I have also sensed much less arrogance on the most appropriate role for the U.S. in the region, and in most cases a greater sense of humility about the limits of what the U.S. can and cannot do in this fast-changing region, where local actors drive events and the global powers tend to respond to rather than initiate change.
An important consequence of this is that more Americans now seem to view the Middle East, and react politically to its people and leaders, in a more pragmatic and nuanced manner than in recent years, when a more cartoon-like mentality prevailed that saw the region as a single lump with good guys and bad guys and nothing in between. Some new research tends to confirm this.
This week has seen the publication of a poll-based study entitled “Americans on the Middle East: A Study of American Public Opinion,” headed by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull, of the University of Maryland’s Anwar Sadat Chair and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They explored how Americans across the board felt about several key, current issues in the Middle East, including the Libyan and Egyptian governments, foreign aid, Iran, Syria and the importance of U.S. relations with the Muslim world and dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The nationally representative poll (conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 2) found the following:
First, most Americans believe the attacks against American diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya were the work of extremist minorities and were not supported by majorities in those countries. However, majorities of Americans also feel the Arab governments did not try to protect the missions.
Second, a substantially increased majority of Americans wants to reduce aid to Egypt. A modest majority has an unfavorable view of Egypt and a large majority an unfavorable view of Libya.
Third, Americans continue to see U.S. relations with the Muslim world and the Arab-Israeli conflict as a major priority, and a minority favors American disengagement from the Middle East. A plurality favors continuing to support democracy, even if it leads to less friendly governments, though this support has diminished a bit as perceptions of Arab uprisings have come to be increasingly seen as influenced by Islamists seeking power.
Fourth, majorities continue to say that it is possible for the West and the Muslim world to find common ground, and to attribute the conflicts between Islam and the West to political rather than cultural or religious factors.
Fifth, most Americans believe an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program would do little or nothing to slow down the program. The majority believes it would lead to Iran striking U.S. bases and drawing the U.S. into a war, drastically increase the price of oil, and that it would worsen America’s military and strategic position in the Middle East. A slight majority favors taking a neutral stance toward the possibility of Israel carrying out a strike.
And sixth, majorities of Americans would favor the U.S., jointly with its allies, increasing diplomatic and economic sanctions against Syria and imposing a no-fly zone over Syria. However, majorities oppose providing arms and supplies to anti-government groups, bombing Syrian air defenses, or sending U.S. troops into Syria.
The heartening news in this study is that Americans may be adopting more nuanced and realistic views toward people and events in the Middle East, based on events on the ground and actual national self-interest – rather than the combination of ideological manipulation, widespread ignorance, lingering anger, and presumptuous paternalism and militarism that drove so many American attitudes to the Middle East in past decades. This is also certainly the impression I get from speaking with many Americans these days.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.