Libyan war advocates claimed many things in support of military intervention. Two claims in particular stand out for the importance some interventionists placed on them. One of the “strongest reasons” for intervention, we were told, was that it would have a deterrent effect on other authoritarian regimes and provide encouragement to other protest movements. No other governments have been deterred from doing whatever they wish to their own protesters, and there was little reason to think that they would be. Another benefit of intervention was supposed to be that it would change the way that Arab publics saw the United States. The Libyan uprising had become central to the “Arab Spring,” and U.S. support for it would align it with the vast majority of Arabs throughout the region. According to Marc Lynch, Libya had become “a litmus test for American credibility and intentions.”
According to a new poll conducted for the Arab-American Institute (via Scoblete), none of this appears to be the case. The establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya rates very low on the list of priorities that respondents had. Respondents were asked “which is the most important for the U.S. to address in order to improve ties with the Arab world,” and intervening in Libya was the choice of no more than 6% in any country except Lebanon, where there was a much higher figure of 20%. Only in Saudi Arabia does a clear majority believe that Obama’s handling of this policy contributes to the improvement of U.S.-Arab relations. A plurality in Lebanon believes the same.
In every other Arab country surveyed, a plurality in the rest (Morocco, Jordan, UAE) and a majority in Egypt (56%) believes that Obama’s handling of the Libyan intervention has worsened U.S.-Arab relations. Just 13% of Moroccans, 7% of Egyptians, 21% of Jordanians, and 32% of Emiratis see Obama’s handling of this issue as improving relations. The other respondents said that the intervention had no impact on U.S.-Arab relations. If Libya was a litmus test for American credibility throughout the region, shouldn’t that be reflected in public opinion?
This was not hard to foresee. In fact, to his credit, Marc Lynch predicted this development:
But if that action takes military form, including the kind of bombing would actually be required to implement a No-Fly Zone, I suspect that the narrative would rapidly shift against the United States.
The people surveyed in the AAI poll mostly live in countries ruled by U.S.-allied monarchs and military regimes, so it would be understandable if respondents tended to be dismissive of any and all policies carried out by the Obama administration. Of course, this is why there was never much reason to believe that intervening in Libya would improve America’s reputation in the region. There are too many other deeply unpopular U.S. policies overshadowing any other policy that might have initially been welcomed by a majority of Arabs across the region. The administration reportedly believed that intervening in Libya represented an opportunity to align “values” and interests, but barring radical changes in U.S. policy in the entire region that alignment cannot be achieved. It certainly can’t be achieved by one policy in isolation, especially when that policy is another questionable resort to the use of military force.
Second Update: Via Patrick Appel, Adam Serwer notices the same thing, and comments on the poll that “this is particularly bad given that part of the administration’s underlying rationale for intervening in Libya was to shift the regional narrative that the U.S. only supports brutal dictators and not the democratic aspirations of Arabs.” Contra Serwer, the poll suggests that the Libyan intervention has made things worse for the U.S. insofar as a majority of Egyptians believes that the administration’s handling of the intervention has worsened U.S.-Arab relations. 56% of Egyptians accounts for a huge proportion of the Arab population in the region. The net result from the entire survey is a negative one for U.S.-Arab relations. The negative Egyptian reaction is significant for another reason: the Libyan war was premised on protecting Egypt from destabilization. Most Egyptians appear to reject that. It isn’t just that the promised improvement didn’t materialize, but the intervention had the opposite effect as expected.