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In run-up to Iraq war, U.S. image fast eroding

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Dan Vlasin, a 23-year-old teacher in Romania, has no doubts that the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein. But he's just as certain that America doesn't have the right to overthrow the Iraqi leader.

"America is acting as if it were God," says Vlasin, from the city of Cluj in Transylvania. "Saddam Hussein is a paid assassin, but it's up to the Iraqi people to get rid of him."

Donna Wright, a massage therapist in London, is sensing more anti-American feeling these days. "I'm not anti-American people, I'm anti-American administration," she says. "I don't agree with what they're doing."

Both Romania and of course Britain, America's staunchest ally, support a U.S.-led war against Iraq. Vlasin and Wright disagree with their governments, and they're not alone.

From a legal consultant in Rome to a housewife in Hungary to a businessman in Madrid, the message is the same: The image of America is fast eroding.

A poll released Tuesday shows that U.S. favorability ratings have plummeted in the past six months, both in countries that oppose war and countries that support it.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, found that in Britain, favorable views of the United States have declined from 75 percent to 48 percent since mid-2002. In Poland, positive views have fallen from nearly 80 percent six months ago to 50 percent. In Russia, favorable views are lower -- 28 percent -- than before the terror attacks.

And in Turkey, which has yet to approve U.S. use of its military bases, favorable views have dropped from 52 percent in 1999-2000 to 30 percent last year to 12 percent today, the survey found.

When asked simply whether they favored the war, respondents in Italy and Spain registered 81 percent opposition. And yet respondents largely felt that ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein was a good thing. In France, 73 percent saw the Iraqi public benefiting.

"The world is not with us for the most part," says Andrew Kohut, director of The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which interviewed more than 5,500 people in nine nations from March 10-17 with a margin of error varying from 3.5 to 5 percentage points. "But they think there will be positive changes in Iraq and the region."

Asked Tuesday whether it bothered President Bush that much of the world opposes him, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer did not answer directly. He countered with other domestic polls suggesting many Americans think Saddam is a threat.

If so many people feel that Saddam's ouster would be beneficial, why has the U.S. image suffered so much in pursuing that goal?

For much of the world, "the issue is not so much about disarming Saddam as about how the United States is using its power," says Gideon Rose, an analyst at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"It's up to the United States to dissipate this worry," Rose says. "It has to demonstrate that its power will be used within some kind of limits."

Global opposition to U.S. foreign policy is greater now than it ever has been, Rose said, noting that during the war in Vietnam, opinion within individual countries was much more divided.

Time and again, people questioned on the streets Tuesday cited fears that the United States is serving as a kind of "global sheriff," in the words of Nadia Boneva, a 33-year-old environmental expert in Bulgaria, whose government supports the United States.

"America always changes its policies to suit its interests," said Ertugrul Erdogan, 41, sitting in a McDonalds in central Ankara on Tuesday, eating a hamburger.

"It moves with the megalomania of being the only power after the collapse of Russia."

In the eyes of Adrian Zavala, a 21-year-old Mexican selling gum in front of the U.S. Embassy in his country, Bush "wants to be the owner of the world, and that's not right."

And in Canada, which has said it won't back a war on Iraq that lacks U.N. support, 26-year-old Emmett O'Reilly said he was proud of his government's stance.

"It shows that Canada has its own mind and that we can stick by our decisions," said O'Reilly, a computer worker for the Toronto police force.

The State Department released a list Thursday of 30 countries it called members of a Coalition for the Immediate Disarmament of Iraq. Along with Britain and Spain it included countries like Afghanistan, Albania and Eritrea but was notable for the absence of such important countries as France, Germany, Russia and China.

With war seeming inevitable, is there anything that the United States can do to reverse the erosion to its image?

At a gathering last week in New York, former President Bill Clinton was careful not to criticize Bush, but said that once Saddam is ousted, the administration would do well to "reach out" to those countries with whom relations have been strained.

Rose, of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that even if the war is a total success, the United States will have to "make a serious, well thought-out effort to convince people that this war isn't just the first of many."

But many doubt that such an effort will be made.

"In most parts of the world people are going to hate the United States," said Jose Ortiz de Solorzano, a 47-year-old businessman in Madrid, Spain, whose government is supporting the war.

"But since it has vast economic and military power," Ortiz said, "I suppose it doesn't care."


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