World to Americans: You're OK -- it's Bush we hate

But if we reelect the least popular man on the planet, we could find ourselves being despised, too.

Published October 22, 2004 7:59PM (EDT)

Foreigners say over and over that it's George W. Bush they dislike, not all Americans. But what if Americans give Mr. Bush a second term as president on Nov. 2? Will foreigners still say it's the man in the White House who is the problem, not the voters who put him there?

The U.S. presidential election is widely seen as too close to call, but one thing is clear: If the rest of the world could vote, Bush would lose in a landslide.

The most recent evidence came last week, when major newspapers in 10 countries released the results of a series of coordinated opinion polls. Thousands of people in Japan, Great Britain, Israel, Mexico, Spain, Russia, South Korea, France, Canada and Australia were asked their views about Bush, challenger John Kerry, the war in Iraq and the global role of the United States. By a 2-to-1 margin, foreigners opposed a second term for Bush. Only in two terror-traumatized countries, Israel and Russia, did a majority of respondents favor Bush over Kerry.

Most foreign governments seem to share their citizens' desire for Bush's defeat, even if diplomatic constraints keep them from saying so publicly. "Even off the record, government officials will not tell you this," a spokesman for a major European nation told me in June, "and I am not telling you this now." But his mischievous smile left little doubt about his true feelings.

What is striking is how foreign governments and ordinary citizens alike invariably emphasize that their antipathy toward Bush does not extend to America, or Americans, at large.

"We Like Americans, We Don't Like Bush," ran the headline in the British newspaper the Guardian. "Bush Is the Problem," explained the headline in South Korea's Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper.

The fact that foreigners make this distinction may comfort Americans, but it shouldn't be taken for granted. After all, in a democracy -- and don't most Americans think we have the greatest democracy in the world? -- the people are responsible for the government they elect.

Of course, one can argue that Americans didn't really elect Bush the first time. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by half a million votes, but Bush ended up as president with help from his brother, the governor of Florida, and a Republican-dominated Supreme Court.

But whatever the absurdities of the Electoral College that governs U.S. presidential elections, the rules are the rules, everyone knows them and each side has had plenty of time to get ready for this year's showdown.

If Bush does win on Nov. 2, Americans will in effect be saying to the world that we endorse his bellicose, highhanded, unilateralist approach to international affairs. In that event, why should foreigners keep drawing a distinction between an American president they deplore and the American population that gave him four more years in power?

The fact is, Americans have long benefited from the world's forgiving attitude of not blaming us for our government's actions. It has been a recurring theme throughout the 20 years that I have traveled abroad as a journalist, and I heard it repeatedly in 2001, when I spent six months before and after the Sept. 11 attacks visiting 15 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and Central America.

I was researching a book about why the United States fascinates and infuriates the world. As I interviewed people from all walks of life, I heard them differentiate again and again between America the country -- its people, its ideals, its wealth, technology and popular culture -- all of which they admired, and the American government, which often they did not.

A few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, I interviewed Ana, a middle-aged intellectual in Barcelona, Spain. She told me, "I love the music of Motown and the movies of Hollywood. After all these years, I feel that your culture is now our culture too. But we do wish our American friends would think more about their government, because we have to live with America's policies and that is often difficult, especially when war is in the air."

Most Americans don't realize it, but when we elect our president, we are also electing the de facto president of the world. The U.S. government shapes basic realities for people all over the planet: Will there be war? Will interest rates rise or fall? Will universal threats like global climate change be combated or ignored?

Because the United States exercises such decisive influence over the lives of everyone else on this planet, some foreign opinion leaders have begun suggesting that non-Americans should also be able to vote for who runs the United States.

Abdel Monem Said Aly is a columnist for Al-Ahram, Egypt's leading daily newspaper. When I interviewed him in Cairo, he said, "I have wanted to write an opinion article for the New York Times urging that American elections be opened to foreigners, because what the American government decides about economic policy, military action and cultural mores affects me and all other people around the world."

Said Aly's idea makes a certain sense, but it won't happen anytime soon. For the time being, foreigners will remain at the mercy of the U.S. electorate. Today, people the world over say they like Americans despite our government. But will they still love us tomorrow, if we return that government to power on Nov. 2?

If Americans give Bush another four years as president, the popular global backlash could be intense, including not just rhetorical denunciations of American stupidity but perhaps boycotts of American products and worse. And for the first time, overseas anger may come not only from fanatical militants but ordinary citizens, and it may be directed not only at George W. Bush but also toward the ordinary Americans who put him back in office for another four years.

In that unhappy event, we Americans will have no one to blame but ourselves.

On the other hand, if Americans vote Bush out on Nov. 2, it will signal the world that its affection for us is both recognized and reciprocated. And that -- to borrow a line from one of the movies that have made American culture so beloved around the world -- could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

By Mark Hertsgaard

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George W. Bush