Arab and U.S. Public Opinion Show Similar Concerns About Iraq War

By invading Iraq without a plan and with no clear understanding of the consequences that would result from this war, the Bush Administration has created a bind for itself and for the Middle East as well.

Significant majorities of Iraqis and Americans now want U.S. forces to leave that country, arguing that the American presence provokes the insurgency. Countering this, however, is a sense that should the U.S. forces leave Iraq prematurely, the country could disintegrate into a more deadly civil war which could spill over into the broader region. This, it is argued, would further embolden Iran, which is already seen as the major beneficiary of the war, leaving the entire Gulf region open to the ambitions of the Islamic Republic.

These concerns, expressed by many in the U.S., appear to be shared in the Arab world as well. A recent poll in five Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Lebanon) found hostility to both U.S. and Iranian roles in Iraq. The poll, conducted by Zogby International for the Arab American Institute surveyed 3,400 people in the five countries, all of which are allies of the U.S.

In each of the five countries, substantial majorities gave negative ratings to the roles played by the U.S. in Iraq, ranging from 96% negative in Jordan and an 83% negative rating Egypt to 68% negative in Saudi Arabia. Iran’s role fared no better with 78% of Saudis and more than two-thirds of Jordanians, Emirates, Lebanese and Egyptians giving that country’s role in Iraq a negative rating.

When asked what worried them the most about Iraq, almost 50% in each of the five countries pointed to the prospect of Iraq disintegrating into three parts or into a civil war that would spill over into the broader region. The next greatest concern among most of those surveyed was the prospect of a permanent U.S. occupation of Iraq. This view was felt by 47% in Jordan, 38% in Egypt and a quarter of Saudis.

Given this, what should the U.S. do? About three quarters of Egyptians and Jordanians say “withdraw immediately,” a view shared by a 40% plurality in all the other countries. U.S. pursuance of diplomatic options and work for unity in Iraq were the preferred options in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Lebanon. There was no significant support for the current “surge” policy advocated by the Bush Administration in any of the five countries in our survey.

What is significant in these findings is not only the degree to which the failure of the U.S. approach in Iraq, but also the degree to which Arab opinion is cognizant of the potential dangers down the road: namely, a greater role for Iran and an Iraqi civil war. This is most acute in those countries that are allies of the U.S. and rely, in part on U.S. security cooperation.

What is so troubling is that the Bush Administration strode along as if unaware of the damage done, not only in Iraq, but to longstanding U.S. relations in the region.

Given all of this, the better course of action is that proposed by the Iraq Study Group. While many thought that the Iraq Study Group had been forgotten, it was given new life last week in legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Most press accounts focused only on the date for withdrawal of U.S. troops set by the House bill. But an amendment added to that legislation introduced by Congressman James Moran (D-VA) called on the Administration “to pursue the diplomatic strategy… recommended by the Iraq Study group…” which “calls upon the United States to pursue a comprehensive ‘New Diplomatic Offensive’ designed to build an international consensus and support structure for stability in Iraq and the surrounding region. The ‘New Diplomatic Offensive’ is to engage all of Iraq’s neighbors, and address all the ‘key issues’ in the Middle East, including not just the situation in Iraq, but also in Lebanon, Syria and Iran, as well as the Israel-Palestinian conflict…. The Committee supports this recommendation of the Iraq study group and urges the President to pursue it aggressively.”

This is the sound approach we should take. Neither a unilateral “surge” nor a precipitous withdrawal will undo this mess. Working with allies and neighbors of Iraq to achieve a degree of stability and political reconciliation is the only way forward out of this morass we have made for ourselves and our friends in the region.