Shadow Government

The limits of Arab opinion polling

For all of the talk these days about the wide divide between the United States and the Arab world, a cynic might observe that one thing that the American people and Arab people share in common is disappointment with President Obama. His current 45 percent Gallup approval rating in the United States is a substantial decline from the 60 percent of a year ago, and corresponds with a climb in his disapproval rating from about 37 percent to 47 percent in the same timeframe. Meanwhile, the newest edition of the Arab Public Opinion Poll by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution reveals an even more dramatic decline in President Obama's approval ratings among Arab publics in six major countries. In just one year, the percentage of Arabs having positive views of Obama declined from 45 percent to 20 percent, while his disapproval ratings in the Arab world skyrocketed from 23 percent to 62 percent.

The negative opinion numbers in the Brookings survey should at least disabuse the Obama administration of over-prioritizing its inaugural goals of improving America's poll ratings around the world -- because doing so does not necessarily advance American interests. Nor do global approval ratings necessarily indicate wise and effective policies. The task of statecraft is not to chase the whims of public opinion, but to pursue policies that serve the nation and that over time will create a more stable, free, prosperous, and peaceful world.

Whether the Brookings poll heralds a global trend remains to be seen. This Legatum Institute-RUSI poll from May revealed the growing disappointment with Obama here in the United Kingdom; a telling barometer of overall European public opinion will be the forthcoming 2010 edition of the German Marshall Fund's landmark Transatlantic Trends survey. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey also found declines in Obama's standing in Muslim-majority countries while still retaining high approval elsewhere in the world, such as East Asia.

My fellow FP contributor Marc Lynch offers some thoughtful insights on the Arab Public Opinion Poll results, which he regards as worrisome, though mindful of important caveats on the limitations of polling in a region beset with autocratic governments and restrictions on freedom of expression and media. Yet as troubling as these new numbers may be, the salience of public opinion polls overseas should not be exaggerated -- and here the Obama administration can take heart. Public opinion surveys in the Middle East in particular can be fickle, elusive, and unreliable indicators of true beliefs. And global public opinion polls in general do not provide sufficient -- or sometimes even helpful -- guidance for policy-making.

Illustrating the deficiencies of opinion surveys in the Middle East, David Pollock and his team at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently issued a study "Actions, Not Just Attitudes" measuring behavior towards the United States in the Arab World. The path-breaking approach creates an "Arab Behavior Index" assessing variables such as the number of visas sought by Arabs to visit or study in the United States, amounts of American brand products purchased in the Arab world, number and scope of anti-American protests, etc. In other words, it measures what Arabs do, not just what they say. Based on these indicators, the study finds that the disposition of Arab publics towards the United States is fairly positive -- and has been since the allegedly dismal days of 2003. In its words:

In short, regardless of what Arab opinion polls or media say, overall relations with the United States -- official and popular -- improved steadily in many respects throughout the second term of the 'profoundly unpopular' Bush administration."

A related deficiency of opinion polls is that they try to capture people's thoughts on imagined scenarios, without experiencing the reality of what that change might mean. For example, while the Brookings survey finds 45 percent of Arabs saying the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would improve their view of the United States, such a question does not address the potential consequences of a premature withdrawal. If an early U.S. exit were to relegate Iraq to collapse as a failed state, civil war, or quasi-colonization by Iran, opinions of the United States in the region would likely plummet even further. (Or to take a vivid recent example, President Bush's decision in 2007 to surge troops in Iraq was universally unpopular in the region, the rest of the world, and at home in the United State. But it produced the needed results, as Obama's speech last week demonstrated, albeit without crediting his predecessor).

So while aspects of Obama's Cairo speech last year may have helped produce a momentary spike in his popularity in the region, a much more enduring benefit for America's standing in the Arab world will come from implementing sound policies that produce good results. Such as successfully completing the mission in Iraq so that it becomes a nation peaceful, secure, and free; promoting political and economic reform among the region's many repressive regimes and stagnant economies; addressing regional threats such as the Iranian nuclear program; and yes, patiently pursuing a fair and durable two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Doing so may entail being unpopular in the short-term -- but such is often the cost of leadership.

HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Why India has mixed emotions about Obama

President Obama will visit India on a state visit in early November. I recently returned from New Delhi, and it was a trip that revealed a mix of hope and ambivalence that awaits the president's arrival. 

On the positive side of the ledger, developments over the past few months have diminished India's sense that U.S. diplomacy has neglected Asia's key rising democracy after a bad stretch early in the Obama administration. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns delivered a terrific speech in June that declared America's vital interest in India's rise and Washington's desire to facilitate it -- a geopolitical vision that has been lacking since President Bush left office. Counterterrorism cooperation has intensified since the United States allowed Indian officials to interrogate captured terrorist suspect David Headley and explore his connections to Pakistani militant groups. The Obama administration has softened its line about dramatically drawing down troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, encouraging Indians and others to hope that the president will see the mission through to some minimally satisfactory conclusion. 

With regard to Indians' closely watched northern neighbor, Sino-American relations appear to have stabilized after Washington's flirtation with the G2 condominium concept last year, followed by a period of military and diplomatic tension that has led to stronger U.S. pushback on Beijing's revisionist claims in maritime Asia. The U.S. administration is engaging in a concerted push to lift remaining technology sanctions on India -- a legacy of America's 30-year effort to contain Indian power when the countries were estranged by Cold War and proliferation tensions -- and to more broadly revise American export control laws in ways that catalyze technology trade and investment. The Obama administration is considering declaring its support for India's permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council -- an overdue change of American policy if it occurs. All these developments have been welcomed in New Delhi.

However, India's strategic community remains concerned about (and in some cases, alarmed by) the president's approach to Pakistan; his strategy for Afghanistan; his willingness to pursue a more robust Asia policy that raises the costs of Chinese assertiveness; the absence of American leadership on trade; and his commitment to treating India as a key power and partner in world affairs in a way consistent with Indians' own sense of their country's rising stature and capabilities.

Pakistan/Afghanistan and China are central areas of concern. Indian elites recognize that Washington has ceded to Islamabad (read Rawalpindi, headquarters of Pakistan's military establishment) a dominant role in delivering the Afghan Taliban and associated insurgent groups for an Afghan political settlement.  Indians fear this will impose Pakistani suzerainty over Afghan politics in return for the creation of conditions that allow Western forces to come home. This U.S. approach, and the president's "surge and withdraw" announcement of 2009, caused many Indian officials and experts to give up hope a long time ago that Obama would ultimately leave behind an independent Afghanistan that would not threaten India by playing host to Islamic militants with wider regional and global ambitions to foment jihad.

On China, one retired Indian admiral and leading strategist told us that, in light of China's developing blue-water navy and ambitions to project maritime power far from home, "India is the only thing standing between China and the South Atlantic." Washington and New Delhi, he argued, should therefore structure their military and diplomatic relations around preventing Chinese hegemony in Asia and the world, especially if America intends to preserve the Monroe Doctrine in its hemisphere and sustain its control of the global commons. Many Indians have long taken a more hawkish view of China in light of their experience with Chinese aggression in their 1962 war, China's early development of nuclear weapons with missiles capable of targeting every Indian city, and China's arming of India's neighbors, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Burma, with an eye on tying India down in its subregion and limiting its ability to project influence more widely. Given China's increasingly sharp-elbowed approach not only to lesser neighbors but toward a more powerful United States, an Indo-U.S. convergence on China should be in the cards -- but Indian strategists do not judge Obama to have demonstrated the necessary resolve vis-à-vis Beijing.  

The president's November trip will be a chance to lay these concerns to rest and outline an ambitious vision for Indo-U.S. relations of the kind that has been lacking in a U.S. approach since 2009 featuring a range of smaller functional initiatives -- on agriculture, education, health, etc. -- that don't add up to a strategic whole. But this isn't a one-way street. The Indian government needs to deliver too -- on legacy agreements on defense cooperation and logistics, nuclear liability, foreign investment, and other initiatives that have for too long been tied up in India's bureaucracy. 

It would also be helpful if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who showed his steel by risking the downfall of his government over civil-nuclear cooperation with America in 2008, could outline an aspirational vision for U.S.-India relations that accords with the potential both sides have long identified.  If this is truly to be a partnership of equals between the world's predominant power and its next democratic superpower, both New Delhi and Washington share a responsibility to propel it forward. If Obama's commitment to that process is less robust than that of his predecessors, all the more reason for India's leaders to step up theirs.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images