Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this past weekend addressed a conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies on security in the Gulf region, where he discussed three issues of immediate concern to U.S. allies in the region.
Gates touched on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. He also touched on optimism, pessimism, honesty and reality. His presentation coincided with a new international poll released by WorldPublicOpinion.org in which 21,740 respondents were questioned regarding Washington's approach to the Middle East and the Muslim world. The poll found the United States to be "largely disrespectful" of Muslims and gave U.S. foreign policy poor grades. The general perception is that Washington's support for democracy is seen as selective and "limited to cases where the government is cooperative with the U.S."
On Iraq, Gates was highly upbeat regarding its future. At the same time he was rather pessimistic when it came to relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. And he was honestly down to earth regarding Afghanistan.
As to the question of loyalty, the comprehensive poll of 21 countries puts into question just who are really Washington's friends -- and who are its fair-weather friends -- in the Middle East. While uncovering widespread opposition to the United States maintaining naval bases in the Gulf, the poll gives the United States poor grades in its dealings with the Muslim world.
In Bahrain Gates offered an optimistic vision of Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. His critics, however, said his description was overly simplistic, overly optimistic, and painted an unrealistically rosy picture of an uncertain future.
Gates, who gave the opening remarks on the situation in the Middle East at the fifth Manama Dialogue conference in Bahrain, said Iraq was at the "dawn of a new era."
Just hours before he spoke, a massive car bomb had killed 55 people.
Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a former Iraqi defense minister, told me the previous day that he believed mayhem and chaos would engulf Iraq "15 minutes after American troops pull out of the country."
The irony here is that Dulaimi is a moderate and a secular. He runs the Baghdad-based Center for Research and Strategic Studies, which he founded in 2003 upon his return from exile in London. His center conducted the majority of the opinion polls in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of the country -- polls that have demonstrated mounting dissatisfaction with the continued occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces. Yet despite his criticism of the Coalition Provisional Authority, he fears the departure of American forces will precipitate greater violence in the country.
Speaking of polls, this is just in:
The result of this poll should have Washington reassess the question of who its friends really are: Of the 21 nations polled, 14 oppose the notion of the United States maintaining bases in the Gulf, and three are divided. Interestingly, Egypt, a supposed U.S. ally and recipient of generous U.S. financial aid, came in first in opposing U.S. naval bases in the Gulf with 91 percent, just slightly ahead of the Palestinian Territories, at 90 percent. Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally, scored 77 percent, while Jordan, another friend of the United States and recipient of U.S. aid, came in at 76 percent.
The United States scored good points in Nigeria, where 60 percent -- including 54 percent of Nigerian Muslims -- support having U.S. bases in the Gulf, and Kenya at 53 percent. The notion also received low points among European allies, with Germany (52 percent) and a plurality in Italy (43 percent to 31 percent). Publics remain divided in Britain (43 percent positive, 39 percent negative) and France (41 percent positive, 43 percent negative).
"What is striking is that a major purpose of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf is to ensure the flow of oil to U.S. allies, but in no case do the publics in these countries express majority support for the U.S. having forces there," said Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org.
What is more striking is that the United States itself receives only about 10 percent of its oil supply from the Persian Gulf.
The view that "the U.S. purposely tries to humiliate the Islamic world" is endorsed by majorities in three Islamic countries -- Iran (64 percent), Egypt (56 percent) and Pakistan (52 percent).
After listening to Gates accuse Iran of "meddling in the affairs of other countries," a Swiss diplomat turned to me and said that part of the United States' problem was its failure to understand that Iran also has major security concerns. "Is U.S. involvement in the region not also meddling in other people's affairs?" asked the Swiss.
The poll found that in both Muslim and Western countries there is a widespread perception that the United States does not unequivocally support democracy in Muslim countries. This question was asked to seven Muslim publics and five Western publics. In no nation does a majority think the United States favors democracy unconditionally; on average only 15 percent hold this view. Fifty percent think instead that "the U.S. favors democracy in Muslim countries, but only if the government is cooperative with the U.S."
And finally we mentioned honesty. Talking about Afghanistan, Gates said: "There is no doubt that it is a tough fight in Afghanistan," where he said the U.S.-led coalition was fighting "a ruthless and resilient enemy."
"Everyone's ticket out of Afghanistan," said Gates, "is a strong Afghan army." But he added, closing on a note of reality, "We have to recognize that we are going to be in Afghanistan for a very long time."
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)