A Reuters special report on the military intervention in Libya notes that “France wanted to keep political leadership away from the U.S.-led military alliance to avoid a hostile reaction in the Arab world.” It would seem that the Obama administration had the same concern, as it moved to intervene only after a double guarantee of international cooperation—a unanimous call for a no-fly zone by the Arab League, and a United Nations Resolution authorizing the measure. Of course, it’s well-established that Arab cultures harbor strong feelings of anti-Americanism, but do they like other NATO countries any better?
Certainly. Since 9/11, a number of surveys conducted by think-tanks and universities have measured not only a clear Arab disdain for America but also a seemingly contradictory love for many of our European allies. A 2011 poll by the BBC World Service and Globescan/PIPA, for instance, found that while views of U.S. influence are still quite negative in Egypt (50 percent negative, with 26 percent positive), Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all enjoy positive reputations there (France in particular, with a 46 percent positive to 17 percent negative rating). In the Brookings Institution and Zogby International’s annual Arab Public Opinion Poll last year, respondents from a swath of states, including Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, were asked, “In a world where there is only one superpower, which country would you prefer?” France was the clear winner at 35 percent, with China coming in as second choice. The United States came in just above Pakistan and below Russia at 7 percent.
The Arab public’s relative preference for Europe over the United States may have something to do with the United States’ role as the standard-bearer for capitalism. According to Sobhi Asila, an expert on public opinion polling at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, some Arabs believe the United States aggressively promotes free markets in order to maintain the “backwardness” of the Middle East—a kind of neocolonialism in disguise. Nations who are known to favor more socialistic policies (like France and Germany) may avoid this contempt.
Arabs may also look more kindly on European nations since they’re more reticent when it comes to international relations. And, unsurprisingly, countries that criticized the United States’ occupation of Iraq—such as France and Germany—garnered a great deal of respectability in the Arab world.
But the single biggest reason why America’s reputation lags behind Europe’s in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the Brookings survey, Arabs were asked how the United States could improve in their eyes; besides withdrawal from Iraq, the top two answers were either brokering a peace deal or ending support of the Israeli state entirely. Europe, and especially France, is considered to be slightly more in tune with the Arab world on this issue. According to a 2006 report by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 38 percent of French people said they supported the Palestinian cause (an equal number supported Israel). In the United States, that number was 13 percent.
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Explainer thanks Abdulrahman M El-Sayed and Christine Cheng of Oxford University.