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July 13, 2011

The Bombs that Will Bring Us Together?
Posted by Eric Martin

Recent polling data casts doubt on claims by advocates of military intervention in Libya that our participation would improve perceptions of the U.S. in the region.  Proponents of intervention claimed that this would be achieved, in part, by dispelling notions that the U.S. supports anti-democratic despots that suit U.S. interests. 

According to the polls, conducted in six Arab countries by James Zogby's Arab American Institute Foundation (via Adam Serwer), the United States' favorability rating now is "lower than at the end of the Bush Administration, and lower than Iran's favorable ratings."  Of particular relevance:

The U.S. role in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya receives a positive rating only in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but, as an issue, it is the lowest priority.

As previously argued, the notion that our military intervention against a despotic regime (that we had never supported to begin with) would somehow convince the Arab street that we don't back non-democratic regimes in the region when convenient, was a highly dubious contention.  After all, even if we did intervene in Libya on the side of anti-regime elements, we would be continuing our support for often brutal, non-democratic regimes in places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen - with the jury still out on how Egypt tacks. 

The Arab street seems to have noticed the lack of consistency, and come away unimpressed (at least in the nations polled). 

Like Iraq, our involvement in Libya was susceptible to being viewed, not as a principled defense of democracy and freedom, but rather as a selective, opportunistic attempt to target a regime that was, at various intervals, unfriendly and highly problematic - thus reinforcing our image as a country intent on pursuing its interests above and beyond other considerations.

Even when looked at as a stand-alone policy, in which we acted on the "right" side of a given conflict even if not to convince the local populations of some new U.S. alignment vis-a-vis monarchs and despots in the region, its impact in terms of improving our image has been minuscule, overwhelmed by the real drivers of public opinion in the region. 

War-as-public relations is a tool of extremely limited efficacy, especially in this context, where other issues deemed vastly more important by the region's inhabitants remain unresolved if not entirely unaddressed.

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