Public Divided On Views Of The Middle East

President Obama is in the midst of his first trip to the Middle East as president, a region that many Americans think the U.S. is too involved in. The public is divided as to how effective the U.S. can be in promoting peace there.

Mr. Obama's first stop in the region is Saudi Arabia. Many Americans view that country negatively: a February Gallup Poll found 31 percent had a favorable opinion of Saudi Arabia, while twice as many, fully six in 10, were unfavorable.


One reason for some of those negative views may be that many Americans see the country's government as repressive. In April of 2008, 64 percent of Americans told the Pew Global Attitudes Project Poll that the government of Saudi Arabia does not respect the personal freedoms of its people.

The public's views of Saudi-U.S. relations are more positive. A December 2006 CNN Poll found more than half of Americans described Saudi Arabia as friendly or an ally, and 36 percent considered it unfriendly or an enemy.

CBS News Polls conducted in 2003, just after the start of the war in Iraq, found similar results. Only one in 10 Americans viewed Saudi Arabia as a U.S. ally, although about another four in 10 saw it as friendly to the U.S. Thirty-eight percent thought that country was unfriendly or an enemy of the U.S.


For many years, the polling firm Louis Harris and Associates has been asking Americans to evaluate U.S. relations with other countries. The most positive assessments of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia occurred in February 1991, during the Persian Gulf War. Then, just under four in 10 described Saudi Arabia as a close ally of the U.S. But during the fifteen years preceding, far fewer offered such positive views. Only one in 10 (or even fewer) called Saudi Arabia a U.S. ally in Harris Polls conducted during the 1970s and 80s.

A sizable segment of Americans might prefer to see the U.S. less involved in the Middle East generally. In 2006, 48 percent of the public told a CBS News/New York Times Poll that the United States is too involved in the Middle East, while just eight percent said it was not involved enough and 40 percent thought U.S. involvement there was about right.

There is also some skepticism as to how effective the U.S. can be in promoting peace in the region. In numerous CBS New Polls conducted between 2000 and 2003, only about half of Americans said that establishing peace in the Middle East is something the American government can do something about, while about as many said it cannot.

As far as the specific conflict between Israel and other countries in the Middle East, in 2006 more than half the public said that conflict is not the U.S.'s business; fewer, 39 percent, said the U.S. has a responsibility to try to resolve it. That said, the public's sympathy has consistently been with Israel. In CBS News polls conducted from 1990 through 2001, Americans were more than twice as likely to side with Israel as with Arab nations.

Earlier this year, hopes were high as to how Mr. Obama would manage U.S. relations with countries in the region. A January 2009 CBS News/New York Times Poll, conducted just before he took office, found that two thirds of Americans were very or somewhat confident that Mr. Obama would make the right decisions about the situation in the Middle East. (At that time, American's expectations generally for their soon-to-be president were highly optimistic.)


A more recent CBS News/New York Times Poll, conducted in April, found that 59 percent of Americans approved of how President Obama was handling foreign policy generally, while 23 percent disapproved.

Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series.

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    Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys.