Foreign policy seen as bullying abroad
Palestinian Jad Mikhail’s interest in America is deeply personal.
Mikhail’s wife was a newly arrived Baptist missionary from West Virginia when he met her in the Holy Land 54 years ago. They fell in love, married and raised two children, who went to college in the United States and now practice law together in Pascagoula, Miss. He has been to America “oh, about 80 times,” he says.
Which is why it seemed to distress the 78-year-old retired pharmacist, who lives in the West Bank, when he recently was asked how he feels about America these days. He expressed revulsion and admiration — often in the same breath.
“Hatred for America is growing like wildfire. America is a cruel, unjust bully, like a cowboy shooting in every direction,” Mikhail said, shaking his head. “We look up to America. It’s a hero to the whole world. It’s an exemplary country with exemplary people.”
Mikhail is not alone. Nearly three years after hijacked civilian airliners plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and launched a turbulent era in U.S. history, many in the world view America with rising animosity even as admiration for U.S. freedoms remains undimmed.
Human Rights Watch
At the eye of this emotional vortex is America’s claim to be championing democracy abroad. In a series of speeches since late 2003, President Bush has made clear America’s mission to sow democracy in the Middle East, starting in Iraq.
In the shadow of a majestic symbol of America — the marble-domed U.S. Capitol — Ernest Garcia was just one of many recent tourists who lauded Bush’s attempt to make Iraq a democratic beacon in the Middle East.
America is “trying to establish a democratic nation over there, as opposed to totalitarianism,” said Garcia, 53, of Covington, La. “We’re fighting for those things — the Bill of Rights, the freedom of speech, religion and assembly — that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden are fighting against.”
Garcia’s view is shared by many Americans who believe the United States has a mission to spread democracy around the globe. They believe U.S. power is benevolent and, ultimately, a boon to the planet.
Beyond U.S. shores, the view of America’s stature often is far less generous.
“The bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States,” Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria, told a U.S. House subcommittee in February.
Djerejian, who led a bipartisan examination of U.S. public diplomacy last year, sounded that alarm even before opinion polls showed that the popularity of the United States in Europe had declined 30 percentage points in 2003. It was also before photographs of leering GIs taunting naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad hit the Internet and TV screens in April.
Since then, public opinion of America has sunk even lower in polls worldwide. Interviews by Cox correspondents on four continents suggest that perceptions of U.S. moral leadership have worsened considerably.
The escalating anger at the United States stems mainly from Washington’s foreign policy. A series of international surveys by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, conducted from late February to early March in eight countries — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey — found large majorities expressing skepticism of U.S. motives in the invasion of Iraq and in America’s global struggle against terrorism.
Solid majorities in France and Germany believe the United States is conducting the war on terrorism to control Mideast oil and dominate the world. People in the majority-Muslim nations surveyed see a wider range of ulterior motives, including helping Israel and targeting unfriendly Muslim governments and groups.
Humberto Chavez, a 44-year-old psychologist in Mexico City, called the U.S. claim to export democratic values “rhetoric to hide the expansion of the big U.S. oil companies.”
If the war in Iraq is to establish democracy, Chavez said, “it’s like smacking your kid across the face and telling him, ‘This is what you have to do.’ I don’t think that policy is sincere. It’s imposing something, not convincing someone.”
A lack of consistency in America’s efforts to promote democracy abroad also troubled Ondrej David, a bar manager in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. David, 30, cited the “war-for-oil” theory, too.
“The question is, do the Americans believe in pressing for democracy in a part of the world where there is no petrol?” said David, 30. “Democracy is definitely not the only reason [for invading]. Otherwise, America could go into half the world.”
Skepticism about America’s devotion to democracy is also evident in the streets of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
Although recent opinion polls suggest that just over half of Iraqis believe that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth the difficulties that have ensued, greater freedom of expression often takes a back seat to worries about security and jobs.
“Where is democracy?” asked Hamdi Yousef al-Yaseri, who sells melon juice at the same sidewalk stall that he worked in before the U.S.-led invasion last year. “You can see there is no electricity, no safety, people are stealing cars and robbing people on the street,” said al-Yaseri, who blends melon slices and sugar 10 hours a day and makes $100 to $130 a month.
Asked what “democracy” means, al-Yaseri replied, “It means you can go to parties, picnics, trips with your family. You can go out and feel relaxed. You can go see people. Not like now.
“You talk to the government now and you feel like you are talking to the old government,” he said.
For many in other nations where democracy is embryonic or imperiled, the images of U.S. military occupation and contorted, nude Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, as well as the detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have undermined America’s credibility as a champion of human rights.
“I consider America a powerful country, and I think that Americans are clever,” said 19-year-old Victoria Lobanova, a journalism student at Moscow State University. “But the situation with Iraq has soured my opinion. Now I associate America with prisoner abuses and violations of human rights.”
In China, no one interviewed at a Starbucks cafe in Beijing on a recent afternoon believed that Bush’s real motivation is to promote democracy in the Middle East.
“They always use human rights to attack us, but this war is totally lacking in human rights,” said Zhang Tianfeng, 34. “Fighting a war to achieve democracy doesn’t make sense. It violates the principles of democracy.”
It might comfort Americans that demonstrators shouting anti-American slogans wear Nike shoes, Levi’s jeans and Gap tops. Protesters may burn the Stars and Stripes in front of a U.S. Embassy, but then they step down the street to McDonald’s for lunch.
Indeed, even as resentment of America deepens, its products soar in popularity. According to a recent survey by Business Week magazine, 12 of the world’s 15 most valuable brands are American, topped by Coca-Cola, Microsoft and IBM.
In short, U.S. brands are going gangbusters while Brand America — the country’s culture, political ideals and policies — sinks deeper into the red.
Eliphas Nyamogo worries whether American ideals and values are being sacrificed in the name of the war on terrorism.
“I understand the fears of Americans because of Sept. 11, but when Bush says the U.S. will engage terrorists around the world so America does not have to face them at home, he sounds a bit selfish and insensitive to the effects of this on other people,” said Nyamogo, 30, the director of information at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.
At stake, Nyamogo believes, is whether America is identified with the freedom-affirming vision of the Declaration of Independence or the security-dominated vision of the Patriot Act, the administration’s main piece of anti-terrorism legislation.
The outcome could be crucial — for America and for the world.
Craig Nelson is a freelance journalist on assignment in the Middle East for Cox Newspapers. Also contributing: Cox correspondents Larry Kaplow in Baghdad, Julie Chao in Beijing, Susan Ferriss in Mexico City, Sabra Ayres in Moscow, Don Melvin in Prague and Alice Chang in Washington.