I have literally filled my passport with stamps since George W. Bush became president and America’s image abroad hit historic lows. It is common for those with negative views of the United States to distinguish between American leadership and American people. Consistently, I hear some variant of “Americans and the rights and freedoms and protections you have are good, but that government of yours is horrible.” A study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project of 16 nations released this June (“U.S. Image Up Slightly, But Still Negative: American Character Gets Mixed Reviews”) broadly confirms these sentiments. It states that “…a low regard for President Bush is more heavily correlated with an unfavorability rating for the United States than is any other attitude or opinion…” Where Bush was not faulted for negative attitudes towards the United States, unilateralism in foreign policy was. Only in Russia and Poland did respondents blame the American people. American policy was also viewed more negatively than the American people, with the largest disparities on issues like Iraq and the environment.

Like many of my left-of-center political persuasion, the urge to commiserate with the “dividers” is great. However, to acquiesce to such a view of the United States requires a denial of some of the same liberal values the “divider” and I admire in the US and hope to be protected in international affairs. As members of a democracy, the American people are not irrelevant, but essential to their government. In fact, they are sovereign!

Why is American popular will overlooked so easily? Does the world think US government is some sort of dictatorship? Does the international community just “not get” democracy? I do not believe either of these explanations is very useful; after all, on some level, people around the world do recognize the democratic character of the US system. A better explanation is that the notion of a divide between people and state exist before the articulation of any of these responses. It is the quickest, most complete way to explain the not-so-bad Americans and the I-can’t-believe-it’s-so-bad American foreign policy. In other words, even though there is a significant popular and academic constituency behind Bush foreign policy, people around the world cannot imagine another reasonable group of people producing the current administration and supporting its conduct abroad.

Ask an Armenian or Chilean, let alone Egyptian or Jordanian about the idea of establishing a democracy in Iraq through “regime change,” and most will hesitate to respond—not because they are not sure, but because the idea of creating democracy with an army is of such absurdity, they have never had to make the point to anyone else. The now confirmed lack of WMD bolsters the view that the war was initiated neither to help the Iraqi people nor to protect the American homeland. The insouciant treatment of historic allies, epitomized in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks about “old” and “new” Europe, makes any claims to be acting in a universal interest all the more incredulous, further implicating nefarious motives.

Even in a more benign interpretation of events, in which the United States genuinely sought and could possibly achieve a democratic, autonomous, free Iraq, the immorality of exchanging a bloody occupation for a peaceful end is obvious. In this view, the Iraq endeavor can only be an imperial project of the traditional greedy, power-hungry type. It is not the foreign policy of a people.

The treatment of prisoners is further inconsistent with a democratically produced policy. The detention of “enemy combatants” –a moniker which allows the manipulation of international humanitarian law—at Guantanamo and in nations notorious for human rights abuses is hypocritical, if not incriminating, in the eyes of the world. The pledge to treat detainees “humanely,” as members of the American defense establishment have, hold little water around the world when viewed in light of the other varied transgressions of good faith.

Then there are the most acute instances of injustice. For sure, no one in the upper echelons of government specifically willed the infamous abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib and (it is alleged) at other US detention centers, and yes, some punitive action has been taken towards parties directly responsible. However, that media exposure was required to inspire a response that did not even include the resignation of a top official—while the Whitehouse continues to advocate against an outright ban of torturous interrogation methods by US personnel—indicates how seriously the Bush Administration takes this and other issues of inalienable human rights in the real, rather than rhetorical, world.

While support for Israel has been a constant of US foreign policy for over 50 years, continued support is not only enraging, but also democratically inexplicable to many. The brazen expansion of settlements into territories occupied for nearly 40 years is one of the conditions that make Bush’s calls for a Palestinian state and the recent Gaza withdrawal good, but wholly insufficient.

That questionable government motives do not suffice to explain these situations and policies—neoconservative incompetence, suicide bombers killing innocent civilians, the belief by a number of American administrations, UN bodies and foreign leaders, France’s included, that Saddam posed a potential threat—is besides the point. For those that hold them, perceptions are truth and basis for action. Not everyone holds all of these opinions to the same degree, of course, but each is subliminal evidence of the absence of the common values supposedly engendered in democratic politics.

The unwitting perception of the world’s most powerful democracy as undemocratic reveals how American actions are received. Research like the Pew Survey shows the contradictions in a foreign policy based on the sometimes forceful advancement of, in Bush’s words, “…freedom, which is eternally right.” Showing that these inconsistencies exist is the easy though. Anyone who has spoken to people outside the United States could tell you about them. But harder and more important is understanding how to reconcile intentions, perceptions and their consequences for each other. Perhaps Americans are thinking a bit more critically now, two and a half years after the invasion of Iraq, as support for Bush and his foreign policies have declined steadily. And as the Pew survey reports, perhaps some people around the world are thinking more deeply about American foreign policy and the system that produces it, for in the last few years, approval of the American people has declined in countries in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

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