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Obama’s ISIS war is surprisingly popular in the Arab world

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

American wars in the Middle East — and really, American foreign policy in general — aren't exactly popular in the Arab world. But the new military campaign against ISIS appears to be a rare exception. According to a just-released poll of Arab residents in eight different countries, Obama's new war in Iraq and Syria enjoys surprising support from the region's Arab residents.

The poll comes from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which asked 4,800 randomly selected people from around the Arab world about US foreign policy and ISIS.

When asked "how would you evaluate the foreign policy of the United States towards the Arab region," 73 percent of respondents answered negative or "negative to some extent." This makes the broad support for the anti-ISIS campaign even more surprising. When asked if they supported the US-led airstrikes against ISIS, a majority in every single country said they support the campaign:

approval arab countries us airstrikes

(Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies)

The simplest explanation is also the likeliest: people in these countries tend to hate ISIS way more than they do the United States.

When asked, "do you have a positive or negative view of [ISIS]," the results were overwhelmingly negative:

Palestinians, curiously, have more mixed feelings towards ISIS. (Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies)

Given that ISIS is currently slaughtering people en masse around Iraq and Syria, this probably shouldn't be too surprising.

This support isn't necessarily durable. At the beginning of the 2011 US-led intervention in Libya, for instance, there was a fair amount of Arab support for the campaign. By November, after the intervention ended, a plurality of Arab respondents in one poll thought toppling Qaddafi had been the wrong thing to do.

It's also possible to over-interpret these results. You might look at the Iraq numbers and assume that ISIS is losing the battle for popular opinion in Iraq — and for a group that depends on popular support to survive, that's deadly. But it's probably very hard to sample Sunni Iraqis in ISIS-controlled territory, who are really ISIS's base.

But as of right now, it looks like there's a fair amount of popular regional buy-in for the American strategy. Whether that'll continue as the campaign goes on, and potentially gets bloodier, remains to be seen.

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