February 13, 2004

To Spread Democracy, Bush Needs World’s Hearts and Minds

By Alejandro Eggers Moreno
Pacific News Service


During Sunday’s hour-long interview with Tim Russert of “Meet the Press,” President Bush emphasized his determination to spread freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East, and the world at large. He maintained that “freedom is etched in everybody’s heart,” and painted political self-determination as the key to securing American interests worldwide.

A few minutes later, when asked why he was so unpopular abroad, Bush insisted, “I’m not going to change because of the polls. That’s not my nature.”

Bush’s show of resolve will undoubtedly be construed by supporters as clarity of vision and by critics as dogmatic hubris. But politics aside, these two disparate stands — a commitment to spread democracy and a refusal to yield to global public opinion — present a fundamental contradiction that threatens American interests and influence in the Middle East and beyond.

Simply put, if Bush wants the United States to benefit from the spread of global democracy, he needs the support of the people whom that very democracy empowers. This is neither about compromising principles to appease foreigners nor treating the world with the respect it deserves. America’s image abroad is a matter of strategic importance. As long as Bush and his administration remain disliked throughout the world, the democracy they seek to spread will bring about the election of governments that oppose their policies.

This phenomenon has already occurred in Latin America, where, after Washington encouraged open and fair elections, the public turned against American-led economic policies and elected a cohort of leaders — particularly in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela — in large part on their promise to stand up to the United States. If the same process is repeated in the much more volatile and politically charged Middle East, the consequences could turn disastrous.

Russert briefly touched on this scenario when he brought up the possibility of Iraq turning into a fundamentalist state. The president dismissed the notion as impossible — basing this assurance, incidentally, on the authority of three Iraqi exiles, of whom at least one, Ahmed Chalabi, is increasingly seen by the administration itself as unreliable. What both Bush and Russert ignored, however, is that Iraqis — or anyone else with the freedom to choose their own government — are much more likely to elect a leadership hostile to U.S. interests if they have a negative perception of the U.S. itself.

While the White House has sporadically tried to win the support of leaders around the world, it has failed to take into account — or care about, if Bush’s comment Sunday is taken at face value — the effect of its policies and methods on the attitudes of the general public.

In Iraq, Washington stirred memories of the country’s colonial past by declaring its presence an occupation, and pinned its hopes on exiles like Chalabi. At the same time, it undervalued the support of clerics like Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the millions of Iraqis whose political opinions they shape. Now, with elections looming — direct or otherwise — clerics have begun to mobilize thousands of supporters for anti-American protests, and even previously welcoming figures have grown hostile.

Globally, the administration’s explicit and repeated determination to go after Saddam, with or without international support and the legitimization it confers, came across as pompous and dismissive, turning off millions who might otherwise have been willing to listen to the case for war. Even when such rhetoric (or the accompanying promise of financial gain) convinced a government to join the coalition, the manner and tone of its delivery often failed to convince much of the local population.

Some elements within Washington have begun to acknowledge America’s sagging reputation as a problem. The State Department recently appointed a former ambassador to Morocco as head of public affairs, specifically to address rising anti-Americanism in the Middle East. A bipartisan report to Congress found that “the bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States.” Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld’s conciliatory tours were clear attempts to boost their approval among the people of Old Europe.

Such steps, however, are meaningless unless they are accompanied by a real change of attitude within the administration. The United States should not think a few goodwill gestures will patch over old wounds; the global community is now thoroughly suspicious of American motives, primed to see hypocrisy and arrogance even where none may exist. The Bush administration must do more than simply give lip service to the ideals of global cooperation or drag in NATO allies to do the dirty work of reconstructing Iraq in an election year.

Instead, if President Bush is serious about using the spread of freedom and democracy to promote U.S. interests and values globally, he must acknowledge the necessity of a world — people, not just governments — that views America with trust and respect.

PNS contributor Alejandro Eggers Moreno is vice president of the Center for Strategic Assessments, a consulting firm in Los Angeles.

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