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A project that might succeed

Jun 08,2015 - Last updated at Jun 08,2015

I was asked by the Atlantic Council to appear at the launch of their “Middle East Strategy Task Force” (MEST), to present a report on how Arab public opinion views the challenges facing their region as well as their assessment of the role the United States can play in addressing these concerns.

The goal of the MEST, according to co-chairs, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former national security advisor Stephen Hadley, will be to develop a long-term US strategy to assist the Middle East achieve stability and prosperity.

One might take a jaded view at this project, as just another election year effort by a Washington-based “think tank” to develop a policy paper that will, in the end, be nothing more than a restatement of conventional wisdom and existing policy.

What sets the Atlantic Council project apart, I believe however, is the stated resolve of the co-chairs to ground their work in the attitudes and needs of the Arab people. 

Instead of projecting policies developed in Washington for the peoples of the region, MEST intends, as its starting point, to ascertain what the people of the region say they need and then craft policies that meld America’s interests and capacity with Arab aspirations.

As evidence of its seriousness, MEST formed five working groups — two of which are headed by respected Arab American scholars and composed, in equal measure, of American, European and Arab academics and analysts.

The recommendations of the working groups will be considered in the task force’s final report.

It was impressive that the launch itself began with a compelling “vox populi” video produced by Sky News Arabia featuring interviews with men and women from Tunis, Cairo, Beirut and Ramallah.

In turn, the interviewees spoke of their aspirations and frustrations for themselves and their countries. That set the stage for the main part of the launch: a review of Arab public opinion.

I titled my presentation “Confounded, Lacking Confidence and Conflicted”, three terms that I felt describe Arab attitudes in view of the traumatic changes that have rocked the region, Arab loss of faith in the US capacity to “do the right thing” when it comes to intervening in Arab affairs, and, despite this, the continuing strong desire of the Arab public to maintain good relations with the US.

Our polling shows that Arab opinion is largely confounded when it comes to assessing the region’s current crises. People know where they want to be, but they do not know how to get there.

Poll after poll of Egyptians, for example, demonstrate that they want jobs, improved educational opportunities and a better
healthcare system. They also rank ending corruption as an important concern.

In short, they want a clean government that delivers services and meets their needs. What confounds them is how to get there.

Iraqis want much the same from their government. Strong majorities of all Iraqi sub-groups reject Daesh and also express concern about growing Iranian influence.

They do not want their country to be fragmented and they want the central government to represent and provide for the well-being of all Iraqis, but they do not know how to get there.

We found similar attitudes when the Arab world looked at Syria. In equal measure, majorities reject Daesh, Al Qaeda and the regime in Damascus. They also express deep concern with the prospect that Syria may fragment into sectarian entities.

And because they do not support Western-led military intervention in Syria to defeat Daesh, the question remains how to get from where they are to where they want to be.

An obvious concern that must be confronted by any American effort to consider policy options is the Arab public’s conflicted attitude towards the US.

What comes through in our polling is the fact that while Arabs have strongly favourable views towards the American people, values, culture and products, they deeply resent American policy in the region.

When we ask Arabs to name the “greatest threats to peace and stability” in their region, in every poll we have conducted during the past 15 years, the top ranked threats are the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “US interference in the Arab world”.

This, of course, is to be expected, given the disastrous and failed war in Iraq and continued one-sided US support for Israel.

When we ask Arabs, in repeated polls, to identify the areas where they feel the US can be most helpful, they suggest aiding in job creation, and providing assistance to improve education and healthcare.

But on the top of the list will also be “resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. In other instances, however, Arabs will tell us, point blank, “leave us alone”. This is the definition of being conflicted.

Even with this disturbing disconnect, Arabs do not want to write the US off.

When we ask “how important is it that your country have good relations with the US”, substantial majorities in every country say that good relations are important.

And yet, there is obvious disappointment and continued lack of trust and confidence in America’s ability to deliver.

Arabs believe that the US has the capacity: to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, to help end the war in Syria and to help make positive changes in their region.

At the same time, while they are troubled by the fact that the US has not acted to address any of these concerns, they also worry about the choices the US will make if it does choose to act.

I have long argued that public opinion matters.

Any American effort to successfully engage the Arab world must listen to what Arabs are saying — even when we do not like what we are hearing.

And any effort to assist the region must be demand driven.

Given the lack of confidence, and the confounded and conflicted attitudes that prevail, finding solutions and projecting meaningful policy changes will be like threading a needle.


But because MEST has made a consideration of Arab opinion the starting point of its effort, I am optimistic that this Albright-Hadley project may succeed where others have failed.

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