The Perils of Public Opinion

A new poll finds that a majority of Arabs support Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. This doesn’t jibe with “elite” Arab opinion — that of the sort found in the palaces of Arab capitals — which considers a nuclear-equipped, revolutionary Shiite regime a major destabilizing force. (That privately-held view was inadvertently divulged earlier this summer when the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States essentially came out in support of a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.) Most interesting is that the percentage of Arabs in favor of a nuclear Iran has doubled in the past year, in defiance of the Obama administration’s campaign to rally the world in favor of tougher sanctions on the regime. These results can also be seen as a repudiation of Washington’s attempt to strong-arm Israel into making concessions, a diplomatic row explicitly orchestrated in service to a worldview — debunked by yours truly in the current issue of World Affairs — which holds that “solving” the Arab-Israeli crisis will somehow bring the Arab world around to our view of things on a whole matter of problems.

One doesn’t have to be a Revisionist Zionist to think that a nuclear Iran would be a very, very bad thing. Even those adamantly opposed to military strikes against the regime acknowledge that a nuclear Iran would not only threaten Israel, but first and foremost its own people. Equipped with such a weapon, the regime would be able to crack down further on the domestic opposition and engage in foreign adventurism with even more impunity than it already does.

So what does it say that most Arabs profess to be unbothered by the prospect of a nuclear Iran? For one, this must put them on the extreme fringe of world public opinion. Aside from Europe, where majorities across the continent view an Iranian nuclear program as a threat, I haven’t seen polling on this issue in other parts of the world. But I can’t help but assume most Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians oppose the theocratic, messianic regime in Tehran acquiring a nuclear bomb, even if they may be hesitant to embrace the measures required to stop such a scenario. “So what happens is when they’re angry with the U.S., as they are in 2010, you find them more supportive of America’s enemies,” Shibley Telhami, who conducted the poll, told the Washington Times. “In 2009, when they were less angry with the U.S. and more optimistic about the Obama administration and hopeful that something was going to happen in the next year, they didn’t want Iran to be a spoiler.” This widespread irrationality infects other realms of Arab thinking: an overlooked revelation from the poll is that only 3 percent of Arabs “empathize with the Jews who suffered under the Nazis.” Look on the bright side: at least they acknowledge the Holocaust happened!

This support for a nuclear Iran on the “Arab Street” seems to be of a piece with a broader hang-up of chest-thumping anti-Americanism; asked to choose a favorite leader outside their own country, the most popular recipient of Arab affections was Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, (oddly) French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Osama bin Laden. With the exception of Sarkozy, there’s not a democrat among the bunch. And with the exception of Erdogan and (again) Sarkozy, not an elected one either.

Last year, I wrote an essay for Commentary called “What Price Popularity,” which argued that the United States has and always will be reviled by many people around the world (particularly Muslims), that the reasons for this resentment are often quite complex and beyond our control, and that, rather than fret and complain about this phenomenon, policymakers would do well to pursue what they believe to be in the nation’s interest, regardless of what foreigners think. This latest poll simply underscores the irrationality, paranoia, and ignorance underlying Arab public opinion — and why we should stop obsessing over it, if not ignore it entirely.

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