In the lead-up to the final presidential debate, which will focus on U.S. foreign policy, two major new polls track U.S. opinion on issues related to the Mideast. The first poll was conducted for the Brookings Institution, usually a pro-Israel think tank (funded by Haim Saban). But the actual research was conducted by University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami who has conducted many Middle Eastern polls and is himself Palestinian-American. For that reason, I find it to the be the more intriguing of the two reports. The second is by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. Both polls cover similar terrain, but the first appears to offer more hopeful (i.e. progressive) results and the second more pessimistic ones. On some issues, they appear to contradict each other (though there are subtle differences in the way questions were articulated on these particular ones).
Here are some of the salient results of the Brookings poll: Most Americans believe that a minority of Libyans participated in, and supported the bloodshed at our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi (though they believe the local governments didn’t do enough to protect our personnel). A majority of Americans also believe our conflict with the Arab world is about political power rather than religion or culture (take that, Mitt!).
American opinion has shifted since the beginning of the Arab spring, when most of us believed the uprisings were about the urge toward democracy and populism. Now more Americans believe the uprisings are about the rise of Islamism. Those polled were almost equally split in their views of Arabs (49% favorable, 47% unfavorable–views of Muslims were slightly less favorable). Half of those questioned said they’d like to see Arab countries continue their move toward democracy even if it meant they opposed U.S. interests. Favorable views of Muslim countries have sunk considerably in the past few months. Most striking is the decline of Turkey–which has had no discernible differences lately with the U.S.–from 60% favorable to 48%.
A slim plurality (46%) says the U.S. should continue its level of diplomatic involvement in the region. Only 14% say we should increase our involvement.
While a strong majority of Americans favor sanctions against Syria and enforcement of a No-Fly zone, a small minority support more robust interventionist measures like arming the opposition or bombing Syrian targets.
Americans’ view of an Israeli attack on Iran is mixed. While a slim minority wants us to actively support such an approach. 53% want us to take a neutral approach. Only 29% think we should actively oppose such an assault. A strong majority believe an Israeli attack will worsen the U.S. strategic position in the region.
The Pew poll finds that Americans have become much more pessimistic about the results of the Arab Spring. They do not believe it will result in lasting positive impacts for those in the region and more Americans believe it will harm our interests than help them. A majority of respondents said they preferred stability over democracy (isn’t it interesting how Americans have such strong views of what type of governments would be best for others?).
While 56% of Americans agree (with Israel) that it’s more important to take a “strong stand” against Iran, only 35% believe it’s more important to avoid military conflict.
A slight plurality of Americans trust Barack Obama more than Romney regarding foreign policy issues. But this represents a marked 15% rise for Romney since the last poll. A strong majority of those polled believe that changes of government in Egypt and Libya will not lead to improvements there. A large majority believe the U.S. should be less involved in bringing leadership changes in the region.
44% says that U.S. support for Israel is “about right,” while 22% say we offer too much support and 25% say too little. This would indicate that, at least on this particular issue, a great majority of Americans disagree with Mitt Romney’s views, largely dictated by Sheldon Adelson’s $100-million contribution, toward Israel.