US unpopular among key allies
Turkish leaders put conditions on support for the US on Iraq, citing public opinion.
WASHINGTON — America's flagging image around the world since the September 2001 terrorist attacks is crimping the Bush administration's ability to build a coalition for a possible Iraq war.
At the top of the US list of "essential" war partners, Turkey is a case in point. More than half of Turks see American antagonism towards Iraq not as resulting from the country's threat to world peace, but as "part of the US's war against Muslim countries.
This week, Turkey's new Islamist government bowed to domestic opinion, responding to American diplomatic pressure with a "yes, but": The US may use Turkish territory for a military campaign against Iraq, but only if it proceeds under the mantle of the United Nations Security Council, and with a second UN resolution authorizing the use of force.
The move represents the uneasy balance leaders around the world are striking between what they consider a geopolitical necessity - cooperating with the US - and domestic opposition to war with Iraq. As worldwide public opinion of the US sinks, people in key countries increasingly see the "war on terrorism" as aimed at Muslims, and the impending conflict with Iraq as a global bully targeting a personal enemy.
"Dislike of the US is accentuated in Muslim countries, [but] most disturbing is a decline in favorable ratings in countries like Turkey and Pakistan," countries key to the war on terrorism or to any war with Iraq, says Andrew Kohut, director of The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The Washington institute just completed a survey of 44 countries about views of the US, the war on terrorism, and conflict with Iraq. People in key Islamic countries increasingly see the US as "picking on Muslim countries," Mr. Kohut says.
Saudi Arabia is another telling case. In a country the US defended from Iraq in the Gulf war, poor opinion of American policy is forcing a regime already in a delicate position with its public to waffle on supporting the US on Iraq. Pew researchers were not allowed into Saudi Arabia, but America's tarnished image is clear in the Saudi press, as well as from concerns expressed by both countries' officials.
The US wants overflight rights and use of Saudi bases where its forces are stationed, as well as a Saudi commitment to fill any global oil-production gaps during a war. But as one Saudi official made clear this week, the country is in no hurry to publicly demonstrate compliance with US wishes.
At a press conference in Washington Tuesday, Adel al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, said his country would "need to see how the [UN weapons] inspections go, and how extensive Iraqi cooperation is" before making any commitments to the US. Echoing Turkey's stance, he added, "Iraq needs to be dealt with in the United Nations."
According to the Pew survey, favorability towards the US has slid most markedly since 9/11 in key Muslim countries like Pakistan (-13 percent, to only 10 percent favorable), Indonesia (-14), and Kenya, where Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization is thought to be gaining favor, (-14). Opinion of the US in Turkey plunged from 52 percent favorable to 30 percent.
President Bush said Wednesday that while he has little faith in polls, the US is working to demonstrate that it is fighting terrorism, not a religion, and that it will "continue to make that message work."
Calling Islamic terrorists "a group of fanatics that have hijacked a religion," Bush said "I understand the propaganda machines are cranked up in the international community that paints our country in a bad light. We'll do everything we can to remind people that we've never been a nation of conquerors; we're a nation of liberators."
Mr. Bush said the world should pay more attention to the progress in one Islamic country - Afghanistan - following the US removal of the Taliban regime there. "I would ask the skeptics to look at Afghanistan, where not only [did] this country rout the Taliban, which was one of the most barbaric regimes in the history of mankind, but thanks to our strength and our compassion, many young girls now go to school for the first time."
Yet while the plunge in America's image is most pronounced in Muslim countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, it doesn't stop there. Opinion of the US is also sagging among Western partners like Germany, Italy, and Great Britain, though in those countries large majorities still view the US positively. (French opinion of the US actually climbed 1 percent, to 63 percent positive).
Indeed, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is now working to mend relations with the Bush administration after he ran a successful reelection campaign opposing American military intervention in Iraq. That electoral stance fed off of a souring view of the US among Germans - and Mr. Schroeder is not reversing that stand.
Taken together, the Pew survey and other recent opinion polls suggest a growing gap between the US and the rest of the world.
"They see us as out of step," says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who chaired the Pew project. "There's a complete disconnect between the way we see ourselves in the world and the way they see us."
A survey of Americans released this week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland shows a majority of Americans, 57 percent, believe the US goal in Iraq should be to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But in a large number of countries, the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is seen as a greater international threat than Hussein.
Still, the US does have areas of convergence with broader world opinion. While Europeans and Muslims generally oppose using force to remove Hussein, they often favor his removal - even three-quarters of Germans say he should be removed.
And despite Bush's public dismissal of polls, it appears the White House is interested in knowing what the world thinks of the US. After Pew director Kohut reviewed the center's findings with journalists Wednesday, he went straight to a meeting with Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist.