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New Poll Finds Shifts in U.S. Public Opinion Towards Middle East

WASHINGTON, Oct 9 2012 (IPS) - The attacks on U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt last month shocked and scared Americans, but the majority of Americans nevertheless recognise that the violence was the work of extremist minorities and not the majority of the population, according to a new poll.

The poll, conducted by the University of Maryland, was released on Monday during an event at the Brookings Institute, an influential think tank in Washington, DC. It examined how American public opinion towards Arabs and Islam has changed after the recent attacks in Libya and Egypt.

These attacks were triggered by an American-made video insulting Islam, entitled “Innocence of Muslims”. The situation has called into question longstanding U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and public opinion in the United States towards Arabs and Islam.

The poll attempted to gauge the American public’s early impressions of these events to see how or if American diplomatic efforts in the region need to change.

The report found that Americans are less impressed by arguments previously used to support aid to Egypt, with 61 percent unconvinced that the United States should provide aid to Egypt to help its emerging democracy through the ongoing transition. A larger majority, 74 percent, said it is unwise for the United States to give large amounts of aid to Egypt during difficult domestic economic times.

Earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama promised one billion dollars in debt relief aid to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. 450 million dollars of this package is currently being blocked in the U.S. Congress, where it needs to receive a majority vote before the money can reach Egypt.

On Monday, William Gallston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and former policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton, commented, “These findings show that Americans are more concerned about nation building at home rather than abroad for now.” The report concluded that there is support to decrease aid given to Egypt, but not for stopping aid completely.

A partisan divide on foreign policy issues was obvious in the poll’s responses. When asked about giving aid to Egypt, many of those who self-identified as Republicans wanted aid decreased (44 percent) or stopped altogether (41 percent). Democrats, on the other hand, were torn between maintaining aid at current levels or decreasing it. Only 15 percent of Democrats suggested stopping aid altogether. These statistics make proposing foreign policy that can garner bipartisan support a challenge for either presidential candidate.

The same divide was also apparent when Americans were asked about Israeli-Iranian relations. A clear majority of Americans think that an Israeli attack on part of Iran’s nuclear programme will result in higher oil prices and increase the likelihood of an Iranian attack on U.S. bases.

Most Americans wanted to take a neutral stand in the matter, but more than a third of Democrats polled wanted to discourage Israel from attacking and only 3 percent of Democrats wanted to encourage Israel to attack. Yet Republicans were split equally between encouraging or discouraging Israel from attacking.

During a widely anticipated speech focused on foreign policy on Monday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused President Obama of putting “daylight” between the United States and Israel. Romney vowed to strengthen that relationship once again and stand by America’s “closest ally in that region”.

Although the report showed that Americans mostly see the violent events in Egypt and Libya as tied to extremist minorities, it also found that a large majority of Americans, 75 percent, hold an unfavourable view of Libya and smaller majority, 54 percent, hold an unfavourable view of Egypt. The majority of Americans polled thought that neither country’s government had tried to protect American diplomats and their staff.

Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya News Channel, commented that this negative public opinion is mutual. “There is still a widely negative view of the U.S in the Middle East. The majority of the population continues to see the U.S. as the omnipresent power in the region,” Melhem said on Monday at the Brookings Institute. He pointed to “the legacy that the U.S supported autocratic regimes, which had a negative impact on the people”.

Melhem added that this was not always the case. “When I was growing up in Lebanon we had a very positive view of the U.S. It is not in our genes to be anti-American. There are specific political and economic reasons for this change in perspective.”

Despite these shared unfavourable views, the majority of Americans continue to see U.S. involvement in the Middle East as a top priority. The poll revealed that most Americans want President Obama to become more directly involved in the current uprising in Syria.

The poll found was very little support for arming the rebels and almost no support for sending troops to the region, but a majority of those polled supported both increasing diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria and enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria.

Gallston, the Brookings senior fellow, noted that these statistics “show a public precedent for a somewhat stronger stand in Syria than the U.S. government has currently adopted”. President Obama has shown reluctance in becoming more deeply involved with the conflict in Syria.

In his speech on Monday, Romney suggested a firmer stance than President Obama’s. “Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them,” he said. “We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran.”

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