When I lived in Moscow during the Cold War, a popular joke had an American in Red Square talking to a Russian acquaintance. America was a great country, he said, because he was free to stand in front of the White House with a sign saying that Ronald Reagan was an idiot. The Russian, who was unimpressed, pointed out that he was free to stand on Red Square with a sign saying that Ronald Reagan was an idiot.
I thought of this joke when I heard that the respected firm Zogby International had polled 4,000 Arabs in six Middle Eastern countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) this year and found that America’s popularity in the region has nosedived two years after President Obama’s speech in Cairo. Instead of asking citizens of those countries how they felt about their own governments (which an American pollster would never have been allowed to do in several of the countries), Zogby gave them yet another opportunity to blame a convenient scapegoat for their many problems. The most commonly cited reasons for Arab resentment of the U.S. were our “interference” in the region and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Like most Americans, my initial reaction was “Who cares?” However, upon further reflection I decided to submit the following set of follow-up questions for Zogby to pose to its respondents in order to make the poll more revealing and enlightening.
1) Given that illiteracy rates in the countries surveyed range from 9 to 48 percent, how exactly do you learn about America’s activities in the Middle East?
2) Who is a better man, Obama or Osama? (Majorities in all of the countries said that America’s killing of Osama bin Laden made them view the U.S. more unfavorably.)
3) Which example of state interference is worse: America’s effort to support the popular revolt in Libya or Saudi Arabia’s effort to crush the popular revolt in Bahrain?
4) With the exception of Saudi Arabia, people in every country said they agreed more with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policies than with Obama’s. Can you give me an example of a policy pursued by Iran that is bringing peace and stability to the Middle East?
5) I noted that not one of the countries surveyed is listed among the top 20 donor nations to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. By way of contrast, the United States is the largest donor by far. Give me a concrete example of what your own country is offering besides rhetoric to help the refugees.
6) Can Palestinians become citizens/pursue higher education/own property in your country? They can in the U.S.
7) Egypt is a country where nine out of 10 women undergo genital mutilation, where a female American reporter was sexually assaulted in front of hundreds of people on the country’s main square, where a male American CNN reporter was physically assaulted by thugs on the same square, and where the current head of al-Qaida and the lead terrorist of the 9/11 attacks were born and raised. Why exactly should Americans care what Egyptians think of their country?
8) A pivotal year for the modern Middle East was 1967. Please describe, in as much detail as you can, what happened that year. Or, if you’d prefer, please give a detailed summary of a major conflict in the region in the last 40 years. If you can’t do this, we’ll invalidate the rest of your answers.
There is absolutely no reason for anyone in this country to care what Egyptians, Saudis and Moroccans think of our country’s policies in the Middle East. No other country has done as much good in the region as the United States. A glaring example is on display in the region right now: American interference in Libya vs. Arab non-interference in Syria. When Kuwaitis were invaded by Saddam, they didn’t ask Jordanians or Lebanese for help. When Palestinian refugees need more aid, they know better than to go to Riyadh to get it. America’s record in the Middle East isn’t perfect, but it is far superior to that of any of the countries surveyed. Instead of providing Arabs in the Middle East more scapegoating opportunities, Zogby would do well to give them a chance at introspection for a change.
Mark Paredes served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico, blogs for the Jewish Journal, and will begin leading tours to Israel next year for Morris Murdock Travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.