Panelists Discuss Arab-U.S. Relations

Hui Wang

Ambassador Barbara Bodine, John Zogby, Shibley Telhami, Beena Sarwar, Jafar Hassan spoke at the IOP’s “Clash of Misconceptions” forum.

Five Middle East experts discussed the roots of Arab public opinion toward the U.S.—and the “clash of misperceptions” between America and the Arab world since September 11—at the Kennedy School of Government’s John F. Kennedy, Jr., Forum yesterday.

Former American Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine moderated the panel, which included veteran pollster John Zogby, University of Maryland Professor for Peace and Development Shibley Telhami, Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar, and Jordanian diplomat Jafar Hassan.

Zogby opened the discussion by presenting recent polls that gauged attitudes toward America within Arab countries. He said that while President George W. Bush claimed that some Arabs hate the United States for its freedom and democracy, his data paints a different picture.

A large percentage of Arabs have favorable attitudes toward American values, people, and institutions, according to the data. Zogby said that Arabs who have visited the U.S. are more likely to hold a favorable opinion of the nation than those who have not.

The panelists discussed whether America’s policy, or the presentation of that policy by the government or media, is more important in shaping Arab opinion towards the U.S.

While Zogby stressed the importance of policy, he said contact between the Arab world and America is essential to improved relations. “We are biting our nose” on that issue, he said, by placing strict limitations on immigration and student visas.

Sharwa stressed the role of the media, which she said could either bridge gaps or exacerbate differences between the U.S. and the Arab world. Because the media often focus on conflict and do not provide in-depth stories, she said, they allow stereotypes to persist.

Telhami said that the substance of a policy is more important than the media’s portrayal of it.

A change in presentation “reduces what is probably 10 to 20 percent of the problem,” he said. “In the end, policies are the core issues.”

He said his polling data suggests people often form their views on major issues like the Palestine-Israel conflict from sources other than the media.

But Hassan said most Arabs agree with American policy objectives. What must change, he said, is the transparency of policy negotiations.

“There is no problem with the values of the U.S.,” he said.

The panelists also discussed Arab attitudes toward America’s attempts to spread democracy in the region.

Sharwa said there is widespread bitterness about America’s decision to support dictators, including Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, while preaching democracy in the Middle East.

And Telhami presented a poll he administered in 2004 that showed that most Arabs thought the Middle East was less democratic after the Iraq War. He said data reveals that Arabs believe U.S. policy in the Middle East is motivated not by democracy, but by oil, Israel, and a desire to weaken the Islamic world.

Randall Sarafa ’09, who lives in Michigan, said he appreciated the panel’s look at the connection between American policy and Arab public opinion.

“I thought it was a good discussion, especially towards the media’s role in forming policy toward the Middle East and how public opinion can work toward manipulating policy,” he said.