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President Bush on Oct. 16, 2002, when he signed a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. (AP)

What about anti-American views after Bush and Iraq?

COMMENTARY | July 07, 2006

Murrey Marder, taking a second look at a Watchdog survey of Nieman fellows around the world, finds broad, deep concerns over whether America's image may have become tarnished beyond repair for years to come.

By Murrey Marder

President Bush’s militant policies and personality are being cited in many nations as the main cause of growing anti-Americanism around the world, even in countries traditionally friendly to the United States.

In the American press, public opinion polls generally link personal criticism of the president to the invasion of Iraq and his handling of the war there. However, a recent survey of highly professional journalists around the world, done by this Web site, also shows a deeper concern. It reveals apprehensions that people in many democratic nations have about the United States which transcend the Iraq war and could outlast it.  

The U.S., long the superpower centerpiece of the West’s military defenses, is now perceived in many nations as unpredictable. The military strategy that the Bush Administration brought into office as the “Bush doctrine” seeks to give the United States greater freedom of initiative in world affairs by engaging in preemptive war. That scares a lot of people.

These profound strategic issues have never been nationally and comprehensively examined by Congress, the press, or the public. Instead, since the 9/11 terror attacks, retaliation for the attacks has dominated public discussions of strategy.

The Watchdog survey didn’t ask leading questions about American military strategy, or fidelity to democratic principles, or other specifics. To evoke a broad answer, it put one question to Nieman fellows around the world:

“Please share with us your thoughts about people’s main perceptions of America where you live, and how their perceptions have changed in recent years, say since 9/11.”

Write-ups on this Web site in June focused on the survey’s findings of widespread, deep distrust of President Bush and the invasion and handling of the Iraq war. With 34 Nieman fellows from 23 countries taking part, 18 of them noted bitter views in their countries of both Bush and the war; four criticized Bush without mentioning Iraq, and six mentioned Iraq critically but not Bush.

[There were four main June write-ups. They may be found here, here, here and here.]

Bush’s term ends in two and a half years. Any major pull-out of U.S. troops before the 2006 congressional elections, or the 2008 presidential election, could soften the harsh image that much of the world now has about the Iraq war.

But concern over the longer term to the image of the U.S. is a greater question.  

As Daniel Samper, a 1981 Nieman fellow from Colombia now living in Spain, put it:

“The image of some values that were considered very important for [American] citizens has been tainted, like human rights, clean politics, the respect for the Constitution and laws and the transparency of the democratic procedures. The election of George Bush (to begin with), Guantanamo, the Abramoff buying of favors from congressmen and other scandals have brought strong skepticism about whether American leaders really appreciate these values.”

There is a parallel example in the Supreme Court’s June 29th repudiation of the Bush administration’s handling of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. The court ruled that the U.S. had violated both international law—the Geneva Convention—and American law as well. But rather than change policies because of the decision, Bush and Republicans in Congress say they intend to change the law instead.

Participants in the survey were highly-qualified journalists who spent an academic year at Harvard broadening their education. Thus they wrote both as trained observers of their own countries, and as people who have lived in the U.S. and often have, or had, a high regard for it.

That’s the perspective of Guenter Haaf, from Munich, a 1976 Nieman fellow, editorial director of Wort & Bild, which publishes five health magazines with a combined monthly circulation of 14.5 million. "The U.S. is viewed widely as an internationally insensible bully,” Haaf wrote. “Only a minority of Germans, mostly with personal experience in the U.S. and of some in-depth knowledge of U. S. history, still hope that U.S. domestic political checks-and-balance will eventually correct the internationally harmful course of the Bush II administration.”

In light of the current crossfire between the Bush administration and the American press over publishing secret information, this survey also produced considerable criticism of the American media for exactly the opposite reason: failure to challenge administration secrecy.

Ramindar Singh, a 1982 Nieman fellow who is now president of the Hinduja Group, a global banking and investment firm, wrote that "the U.S. Constitution is taught in most Indian schools and colleges as the core document which enshrines democratic values," but "Indian democrats in general and Indian journalists in particular feel let down by the unquestioning acceptance of the Bush policies by the U.S. media, the U.S. Congress and American civil society.

The media crumbled, Singh says: "Bush was off limits for criticism, even satire and humor, for nearly a year after 9/11...U.S. coverage of the war in Iraq, its acquiescence in censorship of embedded reporters, its unquestioning acceptance of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq as 'collateral damage,' have in the eyes of the rest of the world diluted the U.S. media's reputation for objectivity and professionalism."

The most significant factor that courses through the responses is not enmity, or hatred, or bitterness, but disappointment—profound disappointment—about what the speakers expected of the world’s oldest democracy, long a proud mentor to all.


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