As President Obama prepares to launch his second term in the White House, he can take some comfort in the fact that positive attitudes toward the United States have once again risen sharply in several Arab countries.
After plummeting to record lows during the Bush years, the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the new president's early outreach effort to the Arab and Muslim worlds caused favorable attitudes toward the United States to increase across the Arab region. However, by mid-2011, with Guantanamo still open, U.S. forces still in Iraq, and the White House appearing to have capitulated to Israeli obstructionism, Arab attitudes toward the United States dropped back to Bush-era levels.
But now in our November 2012 Zogby Research Services (ZRS) survey of Arab opinion, we find that overall U.S. favorable ratings have spiked upward in most Arab countries. More significantly there are, at this point, strong majorities in several countries who assess that the United States is making a positive contribution to peace and stability in the Arab World. In addition to the countries normally covered in Zogby polls (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), Iraq, Palestine, and Tunisia were also surveyed.
What the 2012 poll makes clear is that the decline in favorable attitudes toward the United States we witnessed in 2011 has been arrested and ratings are back up. In Saudi Arabia, for example, U.S. favorable ratings are at an all-time high of 62 percent, while in Jordan and UAE positive attitudes have climbed back to where they were in 2009.
In Egypt, U.S. ratings are still a low 10 percent. That, however, is double the 5 percent positive rating Egyptians gave the United States in 2011, but nowhere near the 30 percent level it was at when President Obama delivered his "New Beginnings" speech to the Muslim World from the stage at the University of Cairo. In Lebanon and Morocco, attitudes have held steady.
The more surprising findings were the more than 80 percent of Jordanians and Emiratis who now say that they believe that the "U.S. is contributing to peace and stability in the Arab World" -- a dramatic rise from the less than 10 percent who held that view a year and a half ago. This is matched by the three-quarters of Saudis, the one-half of Egyptians, and the more than one-third of Lebanese and Moroccans who also agree that the United States is playing a positive role in the region. In all these cases, the rise since 2011 has been substantial.
In those countries for which we have no 2011 data, in our 2012 survey, we find low overall favorable ratings for the United States (13 percent in Iraq, 2 percent in Palestine, and 19 percent in Tunisia). But once again Iraqis, Palestinians and Tunisians give high ratings to the U.S. regional role. We found that 65 percent of Palestinians, 49 percent of Tunisians, and 40 percent of Iraqis agreeing that the United States makes a "positive contribution to peace and stability in the Arab World".
In an effort to understand these findings we conducted some follow-up interviews with opinion makers. We were told that the reasons for this rise in rating, while somewhat varying from country to country, reflected an appreciation for the more "low key" and cooperative approach President Obama has taken to dealing with the Arab World. They point to the Administration fulfilling its commitment to withdraw from Iraq; its coalition-building work in Libya; its working diplomatically to support change in Syria; and its principled but non-preaching approach to democratic change in Egypt. The one sore point, of course, has been the Administration's weakness on the Palestinian issue. Many, however, maintain some hope that the United States will make a renewed push to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace in the second term.
While this rise in confidence and support should be welcomed in Washington, it also comes with a warning. This is the second spike in favorable ratings for the United States during Obama's tenure in the White House. Clearly there is relief that President Obama has moved away from Bush-style unilateralism. But hopes are high that the U.S. has the capacity to lead. The President thus begins his second term with Arab public opinion giving him a second vote of confidence. The challenge is clear. He must act now. A second loss of hope could be irreversible.