When you first hear that people in some parts of the world have a higher opinion of China than the United States, you think of the polls showing something like a third of all Democrats believe President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened.
The polling in both cases, you figure, may have more to say about mental peculiarities than the state of reality, or maybe it simply reflects the fact that the technique of gathering opinions from masses of people is more sledgehammer than scalpel, a crude tool that lacks precision to the point of smashing qualifications and nuance.
I’ve been polled a few times in my life, and instead of giving “yes” or “no” answers that the pollster is seeking, I have wanted to say, “Well, yes, maybe, if you mean such and such, or perhaps no, if I can offer a bit of an explanation.”
As a pro-Democratic Internet group and at least one Democratic critic have pointed out, many of the Democrats who said Bush knew in advance about the attacks may simply have meant Bush had been warned ahead of time of the generic possibility of a terrorist attack, which is true. They may not have been paranoid lunatics, although, as the critic says, some likely were.
By the same token, the people recorded as putting more trust in what remains in many ways a vicious, repressive, double-dealing Chinese government than in the United States may be delusional or markedly uninformed or many times more subtle about the issue than they can express in polls. The widespread idea that the world is coming to hate America because America is in fact behaving horribly doesn’t stand up.
This idea gets explicit expression by Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, who cites the survey in question and says our “foreign policy of fear” has caused us to act unilaterally and pre-emptively, making our allies move away from us, our enemies to hate us all the more and for “countries around the world” to view us as “arrogant, uncaring and insensitive.” In other words, the animosity is real, and we deserve it.
First off, of course, our allies are not all that alienated, as you can find by checking out the pro-American words from the heads of state in France, Germany and Great Britain. Seldom has such purring been heard. As for the Pew poll that gives us the data about mass opinion and America’s low standing in some places, it also tells us a lot of other things that can be understood as either qualifications or at least indications that the opinions were driven by factors different from what Zakaria outlines.
For instance, it’s not just the U.S. war in Iraq that seems to have displeased large numbers of people in Western Europe and all countries where Muslims are in the majority, but also the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan. Most Americans, even including many of President Bush’s most extreme detractors, believe that ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and seeking to crush al Qaeda there were justifiable actions. And, obviously, the United States did not act alone.
It’s interesting, too, as the scholar-columnist Victor Davis Hanson says, to note who applauds us and who doesn’t. The people saying phooey on us include Western Europeans, who have been doing that, if in somewhat lower percentages, for a long, long time.
Russians and Chinese aren’t enamored of us these days, but it’s not as if the Chinese have the blessings of a free press or that the Russians have yet shown full recovery from illiberal nationalism. The Middle East frowns on us, but, as Hanson notes, we have rescued Muslims from disaster and oppressors repeatedly, and poured billions into the Middle East without ever drowning a “venom” that hardly made its first appearance with the war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, our marks are high in Japan, South Korea, Eastern Europe, India and Africa — places where either our trade or aid and encouragement have made or are now beginning to make a large difference in the fulfilling of aspirations.
It can be argued that the United States has made any number of foreign-policy errors under the Bush administration — that the war in Iraq was a mistake — but that war was not unilateral, without justification or driven by irrational fear, and the errors hardly outweigh the countervailing good that continues to define this nation. It’s an important point to keep in mind during a presidential race in which the topic will keep coming up and the suggestion made that easily misread poll results are decisive in the argument.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)