The following is an edited transcript of the forty-fifth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on July 20, 2006, in the U.S. Capitol Building, with Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., presiding.
CHAS. W. FREEMAN, JR.: president, Middle East Policy Council
Today's topic is the subject of conventional wisdom. We all knew before 9/11 that we were admired and emulated by foreigners, including foreigners in the Middle East, and on 9/11 we learned that we were hated because of our values. Now, I think the American people perceive that, in fact, we are widely disliked, and our government is detested. There are many theories and very few facts in this area, and I suspect that, as always, the conventional wisdom is more conventional than wise.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Sadat Chair, University of Maryland, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
I would like to begin by addressing the question of who cares about Arab public opinion. We have a lot of people in this town who say, what does it matter? Public opinion in the Arab world really doesn't matter much. They have a lot of evidence on their side, frankly. Arab governments have gone against their public opinion in the recent Iraq War and survived. Over 90 percent of Arabs didn't want the Iraq War, but many Arab states not only supported it tacitly, but actually cooperated with the United States. We had American military stationed on their soil.
Even now, when you look at this crisis in Gaza and Lebanon, you see where public opinion is. Public opinion in the Arab world, whether Sunni or Shia or Christian, is decidedly on the side of Hezbollah. We haven't had scientific public opinion surveys since the recent crisis began across the Arab world, but there has been a lot of evidence, not just reporting and anecdotal evidence, but some significant nonscientific polling like the one at al-Jazeera, where 200,000 people participated in an online survey. Ninety-one percent said they endorsed Hezbollah.
So what you have in this case is a huge gap between public opinion and governments, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and others that have been very bold in a way in going against that tide and taking the position that Hezbollah is at least in part, if not mostly, to blame for the Lebanese crisis. Clearly, the bet by governments is that they can ride out the storm of public opinion and prevail. They can make strategic calculations based on other issues. So why should we even be paying attention to where public opinion is on this issue?
Let me tell you why it still matters and why we cannot ignore it, before I tell you where it is. First, think about this gap. All of the discourse that followed 9/11 was initially about the political systems in the region: the absence of democracy is correlated with the strength of anti-American terrorism. It was conventional wisdom. When you look at this...
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