One rule of thumb which I developed over the last few years for assessing trends in Arab public opinion with regard to US policy was to look at the extent to which the Arab agenda was unified around a single issue or fragmented into a more inward focus on local concerns. This is something which can be tracked empirically, which I've done
routinely over the last few years by keeping track of the topics of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya
programs (since they are the two most-viewed TV stations with a
region-wide audience) and the content of major Arab op-ed pages. It's one of the things I'm doing now to try and grapple with the questions raised by Mohamed Abu Roman yesterday - and it's a chance to test one of my hypotheses (sorry, political science speak there.. won't happen again).
In archetypical examples of a unified agenda - Palestine in 2000, Iraq in 2003, and the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war - these Arab op-ed pages and talk shows overwhelmingly focused on a single issue, driving out almost everything else (at the height of each crisis, well over 50% of all al-Jazeera talk shows focused on it). Sometimes everyone more or less agreed, sometimes they bitterly disagreed - but they were all talking about the same thing. In 2005, by contrast, the agenda divided around a variety of different, more local issues - elections in various Arab countries, terrorism in specific countries, the Hariri assassination, developments in Iraq, etc.
This matters because a unified agenda almost invariably heightens the salience of anti-Americanism, since it tends to focus attention at a level where the US is a common denominator, and on issues where American policy is deeply unpopular. A fragmented agenda tended to reduce the salience of anti-Americanism, since the US is less likely to be the most important element in local electoral politics or the like. That's one of the reasons that I've suggested that American public diplomacy is often better served by standing back, rather than doing more and inserting itself in every issue: Jordanians turned against Zarqawi after the Amman hotel bombings because it was a local, nationalist atrocity and not because they suddenly became convinced by the logic of American arguments.
So to predict where Arab public opinion is headed, we should look at whether the Arab agenda is fragmenting or unifying. With three simultaneous crises - Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq - fragmentation might seem like the most likely outcome. But I've been seeing a very strong underlying unifying trend, with the juxtaposition of "Gaza, Beirut and Baghdad" within a single narrative. Sometimes the United States is identified as the common denominator, sometimes it's the absence of real democracy, sometimes it's the prevalence of pernicious ideologies of resistance, sometime's it is external actors like Iran. It isn't just al-Jazeera - the theme is increasingly prevalent even in the Saudi-owned media like al-Arabiya, al-Sharq al-Awsat, and al-Hayat, which have generally taken a strong anti-Hamas, anti- Hezbollah, and anti-Iran stance.
The implication of this analysis is that the more that a unifying frame takes hold, placing the various regional crises into a single grand narrative, the more likely that it will trigger anti-American attitudes and popular hostility to American foreign policy - even if a sizable portion of the analysis is anti-Hamas, anti-Hezbollah, and sympathetic to American policy. So I'm tracking the 'unified narrative' theme right now - will keep you updated if anything significant develops on that front.