From afar, Americans try to steer presidential election

On Jan. 19, the day of the Iowa caucuses, a coalition of US expatriates in Europe will begin a campaign to influence Democratic candidates.

During the past year, I have noticed political dissidence building among my fellow American expatriates living in Europe and around the world.

Now, their growing concern will take concrete shape here in Prague, Czech Republic, in less than two weeks. On Jan. 19 - when the US political season officially begins with the Iowa Democratic caucuses - the American Voices Abroad (AVA) coalition, a collection of American civil-liberties and antiwar organizations from around the globe, will launch a campaign around Europe to try to influence the US presidential election.

Back in November, 50 representatives of Americans living in Europe and the Middle East met in Prague to hash out initial plans.

True, it was a small sampling of a global American expat community that numbers in the millions. But they are responding to an anti-American sentiment that has been felt from South Africa to South Korea since the run-up to the Iraq war last year. These Americans, while thousands of miles from their original homes, have not forsaken their homeland. On the contrary, they care about it enough to want to stay engaged from afar.

"Americans abroad played an important role in the antiwar movement this spring and, of course, we can mobilize voters abroad," says Phil Hill, an American who left the US because he wanted to live in a country with more environmentally-friendly policies.

The AVA coalition insists that it is nonpartisan, and its primary interests are international law, civil liberties, press freedom, and political reforms that they say could make the US more acceptable on the world stage. Its membership ranges from the groups Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad to radical veterans in the Stop the War Brigade to unaligned intellectuals and professionals.

The new campaign, dubbed the "100,000 for 2004 Voter Pledge Campaign for Americans Living Abroad," is designed to persuade expat voters to sign a pledge declaring that they will vote only for candidates who promise to repeal the so-called "doctrine of preemptive war" and the USA Patriot Act. The aim is to force presidential candidates to discuss these hot topics, and to leverage a large bloc of expats and their absentee ballots to convince candidates to take favorable positions on their issues.

During a visit to Prague, Scott Ritter, the former chief United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, spoke to the AVA assembly in a hall packed with American expats and international observers, including the former chairman of the UN General Assembly, Jan Kavan. Mr. Ritter accused the Bush administration of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, undermining international law, and manipulating UN weapons inspectors.

"I voted for Bush, and he deceived me," Ritter, a registered Republican, told the conference. "American democracy is infected with a disease and Bush is only the latest symptom. I believe in accountability, and we as Americans have to confront the disease."

The rise of AVA and the "100,000 for 2004" campaign point to a surge of political ire among the normally lackadaisical expat population.

"When 9/11 happened, my 85 year-old Czech neighbor came to my door with a yellow rose and tears in his eyes," says John Crane, who lectures on history and psychology in Prague. "Somehow, we have lost that sense of support. Now I encounter more and more people who are anti-American. Even the Czechs who used to think America could do no wrong now often say they were deceived."

Others agree. "Just last year when I passed out applications for study programs in the US, my Lebanese students were eager for a chance to study in America," says Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, who teaches at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut. "This year, I could not get them to even take the forms. Several students told me, 'I wouldn't study in America if they paid me.' "

Many American expats say they want to protect the positive image of the US and show the rest of the world that not all Americans agree with current policies.

"While I was protesting against the war last spring, I could have just blended in with the French peace movement, but I love my country, and what it stands for," adds Laurie Chamberlain, who has lived in Paris for 25 years but never been politically active before. "It breaks my heart to see what is happening to it these days, That's why I carried a sign saying, 'I am an American.' "

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