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Most Americans Support Middle Eastern Democracy

April 16, 2011

Cartoon by Darkow, Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune 22 Feb. 2011.

A lot of the comments I hear about Egypt’s uprisings from neighbors and acquaintances are negative. One acquaintance, a blue collar worker, said of Egypt “all I see over there is chaos.” Even those who believe that the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere represent real efforts at democratizing aren’t happy about it. Either they believe that the Middle East can’t “do” Democracy for various reasons, or they argue that any democracy will be taken over by Islamists, turning these countries into clones of Iran. Still others argue that democracy in the Middle East isn’t in US interests.

So it was with great pleasure I read the report that a poll shows that most Americans see democratization of the Middle East as positive for the US.

Asked, “if the countries of the Middle East become more democratic,” how this would be for United States “over the next few years,” 65% say it would be mostly positive, while 31% say it would be mostly negative. Asked about “the long run,” an even larger number–76%–say democratization would be mostly positive for the US.

Even better, a majority of 57% say that they “would want to see a country become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose US policies.” This number is up from five years ago, when only 48% said yes.

I blame much of the negative response I get from my neighbors on politics. I live in a crimson county in a purple state–Ohio is a swing state that voted for Obama in 2008 but gave George Bush his second term in 2004. John Boehner is my district’s congressional representative, and except for an occasional judge, you can’t get a Democrat elected dog catcher in my county.

This isn’t to knock Republicans per se–I’m a “pox on both their houses” type myself–but there seems to me no question that my Republican friends and neighbors seek out, accept, and circulate negative/pessimistic perspectives on the Middle East to a greater extent than my Democratic colleagues and friends.

The poll findings would seem to bear this out. Fifty-one percent of Americans say they think it is likely that the changes occurring in the Arab world will lead to more democracy, but 47% are more doubtful. This divides sharply along partisan lines with two out of three Republicans pessimistic, two out of three Democrats optimistic, and independents leaning to the optimistic side.

Similarly, 59% overall, and 68% of Democrats and 59% of independents, think that it is possible for Muslim and Western cultures to find common ground, while 52% of Republicans say that violent conflict is inevitable.

Other findings include:

Trend line questions show signs of modest improvement in American attitudes toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Majorities express favorable views of the Arab people in general (56%) the Saudi people (57%) and especially the Egyptian people (70%)–putting the Egyptian people nearly on a par with the Israeli people (73% favorable).

Significant minorities said that the Arab uprisings increased their sympathy for the Arab people (39%), and their sense of how similar the aspirations of the Arab world are to theirs (33%). Only very small minorities said that it decreased these feelings and perceptions.

“There is evidence that the Arab uprisings have contributed to improving views of Arab countries and quite positive views of the Arab people, especially Egyptians,” comments Shibley Telhami of the Anwar Sadat Chair and the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.

Nonetheless, when asked how the United States should position itself relative to the demonstrators and the governments, two thirds say that it should not take a position in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Jordan. Among those who favor the US taking a position, though, they overwhelmingly favor the US supporting the demonstrators.

The poll size is small: only 802 Americans. But it is selective, with participants chosen by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses, then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in a web-based survey. Participants who don’t  have Internet access are provided with a laptop and ISP connection.

Full Disclosure

I should mention that I know both the guys whose institutions sponsored this poll and released its results at last week at the seventh Forum on US-Islamic World Relations in Washington DC.

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at University of Maryland, was a public policy adviser on the Middle East for Republican administrations (tail end of Reagan, Bush Sr., beginning of Bush Jr.) until he broke with them because he disagreed that the Iraq war was in the US national interest. His book The Stakes outlined his positions on what should guide US policy. He spoke at Miami a few years ago, and visited my capstone class on Issues in the Middle East.

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland would definitely not remember me, but I interviewed him in my earlier life as a reporter when his book Minds at War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflict of Defense Policymakers was released. I was not impressed particularly by the book (although my close reading of it helped me get a graduate TA-ship in a nuclear policy course at Brown one semester a couple of years later) but I was very interested in his interviewing technique, in which he confronted policy makers with contradictions in their interviews which led them to ever deeper levels of analysis of their own positions.

You can read the questionnaire here.

You can read the full report here.

You can read information on how the poll was conducted here.

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