Suddenly, world wants US to lead

A boosted image is raising hope for a strong US role in reviving global economy and promoting Mideast peace.

As President Bush arrives in China today for his first foreign trip since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the US is experiencing a surprising surge in expectations around the world for its role as global leader.

Much has been said about the enmity toward the US that lies behind recent attacks on America. Anti-US protests in Pakistan continue to worry leaders in Islamabad and Washington, and other nations have seen pro-peace rallies with anti-US flavoring.

But, at the same time, many people around the world are feeling a mix of sympathy for what America has endured, identification with the US plight, and a positive impression so far of the military response.

Those elements are combining to boost America's image and raise hope for its leadership in everything from reviving the global economy to promoting Mideast peace and fashioning a better future for Afghanistan.

Mr. Bush seems to have grasped the importance of America's opportunity for leadership, after beginning his presidency on a footing that was widely viewed as unilateralist and dismissive of the world.

A changed America is not going unnoticed: The mix of empathy and hope for US success in the war against terrorism is prompting people in different countries and cultures to view American leadership in a new light.

Omar Belhouchet, editor of Algeria's prominent independent newspaper El Watan, sees some silver lining in the "horrifying" events of Sept. 11. Maybe now, he says, America will understand the growing terror other countries have faced and will employ its power to help vanquish the scourge of terrorism everywhere.

Pascal Reber, manufacturing director for a pharmaceutical company outside Paris, says he is "relieved" to see the US taking a more measured and multilateral approach in its war on terrorism than he would have imagined from Bush. He now sees an opportunity for American leadership on a range of global issues, from strengthening democracy to shoring up the global economy.

And Marta Lagos in Santiago, a pollster of Latin American opinion, says her recent surveys suggest a window of opportunity for the US to assert its global leadership as it pursues the war on terrorism. "People are frightened and are looking to the industrialized countries, particularly the US, to do something about it." But their first worry remains the economy, she says, and many doubt that leaders can quickly do anything about it.

Following his own advice to Americans to get back to normal life, the president is holding to his scheduled attendance at the summit of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Shanghai, China, this weekend. (But he did drop three bilateral visits.) The trip offers a venue to demonstrate that an afflicted global economy has not been forgotten.

From sadness, opportunity

On several recent occasions, Bush has emphasized that the war on terrorism provides the opportunities for America to take positive action in the world.

Out of sadness, said Bush in one speech, America can "forge ... an opportunity to bring peace to the world, the likes of which we've never seen."

Clearly, America's first goal remains crushing the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and ending the state sponsorship that has allowed it to flourish.

Shifts since Gulf War

But the US is acting in a different time and under different conditions from its last use of force against a Muslim country, a decade ago.

Ten years after the Gulf War, other countries like Mr. Belouchet's Algeria have suffered horrific losses and trauma at the hands of Islamic extremists. More than 100,000 Algerians have died in that country's battle with Islamic fundamentalists - many of whom received training in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"We immediately felt the pain Americans are feeling, because we have lived it, only worse," Belhouchet says. His advice to Bush: "Be careful, you can't negotiate with such extremism."

At the same time, this war so far lacks one element central to the Gulf conflict: oil. That factor fed the view of a cynical America claiming to fight for Kuwait's sovereignty, but in reality looking to ensure its energy supply.

Precisely because this war combats a threat that is so broadly felt, the US is able to adopt a leadership role where it might otherwise be suspect.

The Sept. 11 attacks "were the practical equivalent of invasion from Mars," says Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. "There are different kinds of terrorism, and people will argue over that, but basically [the terrorist attacks] serve as a real unifier of the nations of the world."

Evidence of that is seen in everything from the US emphasis on working with a community of countries against terrorism to the unusual unanimity at the United Nations Security Council, he says.

In Mr. Wright's view, Sept. 11 "taught Bush a lesson" about the importance of multilateral action in today's world, and he says the US could seize this opportunity to do things at the UN, for example, that were never possible before.

For French businessman Mr. Reber, Bush has an opportunity to save the global economy by persuading consumers that the conflict won't become a global war. He says focusing on terrorist Osama bin Laden in its war, combined with forceful US diplomacy for a stable and more humane government in Afghanistan, will reassure Europeans. A skeptic of Bush before Sept. 11, Reber says "People want an America that is interested in working with other countries to promote better governments and economic conditions, not just prop up its friends."

Limits to US capability?

But Reber - whose company is busy producing large orders of anti-anthrax drugs for the French government - worries that the world also may be expecting too much of an America it widely distrusted just a few weeks ago.

Bush "is already leading this fight against terrorism. He's focused on [home] security.... and America is supposed to bring up the rest of the world, too?" he says. "You have to wonder if it's too much to ask."

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