March 3, 2010
International relations isn't a popularity contest. But public opinion polls can be useful in countering myths and examining the impact of policymaker, elite, and media campaigns on the masses.
Which brings us to Gallup's latest poll measuring how Americans feel about different countries. The more one examines the results, the more amazing they are. Americans two favorites are, not surprisingly, fellow English-speakers Canada and the United Kingdom. Then come-Americans are very forgiving-two former enemies, Germany and Japan.
And next on the list is Israel. Even the basic numbers-67 favorable, 25 percent unfavorable-are impressive. But that's only the beginning. Around 10 percent of Americans don't like anybody, and only one-fourth of those 25 percent nay-sayers on Israel, that is 6 percent, are really hostile.
In other words, the percentage of Americans who hate Israel is only 6 percent and the number who single out Israel for partly unfavorable views among other popular countries adds about 10 percent more.
And since 10 percent of Americans say they like Iran (85 percent don't), having only a bit more than that number really disliking Israel isn't very impressive.
After 20 years or so of intensive media criticism, hostility on campuses, double standards, and controversy that's nothing short of remarkable.
This conclusion is intensified further by considering the equivalent results for the Palestinian Authority (PA). Remember that one can like both Israel and the PA. Moreover, the PA receives constant good publicity in the media, campuses, and among policymakers as moderate and friendly to the United States. Yet only 20 percent are favorable to the PA and a whopping 70 percent are negative.
Even that understates the results. How popular is the PA? Well, it's at the same level as Yemen, and that's after a suicide bomber trained and indoctrinated there was captured trying to blow up a U.S. airliner near Detroit.
What about the idea that young people are steadily becoming more hostile to Israel? There is a difference but not a huge one. While 70 percent of those over 55 are favorable to Israel, that number only sinks to 63 percent for those between 18 and 34. Given the fact that Americans become more moderate and less eager to rebel against prevailing norms as they get older that gap seems even smaller.
The equivalent generational difference for those favoring the PA is 28 to 15, but again a favorable view of the PA does not mean an unfavorable view of Israel. For example, those who see the two as the only conceivable peace partners or consider the PA to be far preferable to Hamas would be favorable toward both.
By the way, support for the PA sank to only 11 percent when it appeared Hamas was going to seize control also showing how small hardcore support is for the Palestinians. Presumably that same 11 percent-many of them also among the pro-Iran crowd--is the hardcore hostile group to Israel.
The other astounding result is the size of the Republican-Democrat gap on Israel. While 80 percent of Republicans are favorable, only 53 percent of Democrats are. Democrats are twice as likely to like the PA. In comparison, 64 percent of Democrats like Egypt, a repressive dictatorship despite its moderate foreign policy, and 56 percent like Russia.
This might be somewhat misleading since we aren't told whether the other 47 percent of Democrats who weren't favorable to Israel had no opinion or were only mildly critical. Only 25 percent of Democrats were favorable to the PA so even there (again, remembering it quite possible to be favorable toward both) a wide gap exists in Israel's favor.
Another indicator is that Israel is the only country that Republicans-who presumably include more elements whose patriotism, xenophobia, nationalism, or isolationism make them generally less enthusiastic about other countries generally--like more than Democrats, suggesting that it is high support by the former rather than low backing by the latter which could account for the gap.
Two fascinating questions arise from this analysis: What does all this matter, since public opinion doesn't make foreign policy, and why is there such a gap between the most vocal elites and masses on Israel?
The answer to the first question is that it matters to members of Congress who are running for election in November and know that voters don't want to see them bash Israel or support a president in doing so. Indeed, as President Barack Obama's popularity has fallen and even the media has become more critical, Congress is reclaiming an independent role on foreign policymaking.
And of course the White House, too, is watching the polls. This is one of the most elections' conscious, always campaigning presidencies in history-and the standard there is very high-and clearly attacking Israel either isn't seen as beneficial for its ambitions. This isn't the only factor affecting its behavior but it is one of them.
As to the second issue, there are many factors but let me try to list them briefly. Those who are unhappy with the status quo-that is, the U.S.-Israel special relationship, are going to be noisier. Another is the concept of "Realism" which is, unfortunately, extraordinarily unrealistic, the idea that all governments think alike, defining interest the same way regardless of all other factors. To assume that type of government, political culture, distinctive history, and ideology plays no rule in Arab politics ensures you don't understand them. And so much of the Western elite assumes Israel is the only problem preventing Arab rulers and Islamist revolutionaries from loving the West.
Another issue is narrative, with much of the elite believing that the conflict is one of Palestinians and Syria desperately wanting peace but Israel saying no. In the American elite, there is also more of a yearning to be like Europe.
But American public opinion has more common sense to see through these myths. It understands that there are huge differences between democracies and dictatorship. It knows demagoguery and extremist ideology on sight and doesn't like them. Thus, matters are precisely the opposite of what much of the elite thinks: public opinion, not elite institutions, accurately predicts where policy on these issues will go in future.