By Orville Schell
FRONTLINE/World correspondent and Dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Orville
October 19, 2004
To leave the confines of the U.S. and be able to look back on our presidential
election from the vantage point of a foreign country is to be suddenly jolted
into another political dimension. Only when one succeeds in escaping the
strangely dense gravitational field of American politics does one get a full
recognition of how provincial and self-referential our political universe
During the first presidential debate, I was in Berlin with a group of Arab
businessmen from the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Lebanon. They
were the scions of a group of wealthy families, in their thirties and forties,
had been educated abroad (many in America) and all spoke English. Indeed,
many expressed a deep admiration and affection for the United States and what it
had meant to their lives.
Watching a telecast with these hardly disinterested Middle Easterners was also a
reminder of something else: We Americans may be electing a U.S.
president, but almost everyone else in the world has a real stake in this
election as well... even though they do not get to cast a vote. For, whoever is
elected, for better or worse, that person will lead not only the United States,
but the world.
After all, the U.S. is now the only remaining "super-power,"
with a military might equal to that of the next sixteen most
powerful nations combined. Thus, it has no checks-and-balances,
save those that it chooses voluntarily to impose upon itself
in the interest of the larger world community.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, left,
listens to President Bush during the presidential
debate in Coral Gables, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 30, 2004
(AP/Wide World Photos)
American conservatives may bridle at the thought that a U.S. president might
ever put policies to a "global test" before carrying them out, but it
is undeniable that people of other nationalities feel a deep frustration at finding
themselves so dependent on a leader who so stubbornly guards his right to
make global decisions unilaterally and for whom they cannot even vote. This is
especially true of the Middle East, where people now have as much, or
more, at stake by way of national interest in Washington, D.C. than they do in
their own capitals.
It is hardly news that the majority of Germans are now critical of
"American leadership," and that they evince very mixed feelings
whenever the visage of President George Bush flickers onto their television screens. Indeed, there is a palpable sense of disbelief, especially among many well-educated Germans, that their old American friends may be plunging arrogantly and recklessly towards an abyss. But rather than display outright opposition, the
Germans I have encountered seem gripped by a dispiriting sense of fatalism.
While most root for Senator Kerry, they know that too much optimism is
unwarranted and might only lead to further discouragement and a sense of even
greater global impotence, if Bush is re-elected.
Of course, this state of affairs cannot be exclusively blamed on Washington.
Continental Europeans have been on something of a default mode when it
has come to opposing American notions of pre-emptive warfare or re-shaping the
political landscape of the Middle East. For not only have they no vote in
this crucial U.S. election, but Tony Blair has long since defected to the Bush
camp. And while the Germans and French have largely refused to go along
with the U.S., they themselves failed to deal with the very real problems with
which Saddam Hussein's Iraq confronted the world, and they have yet to
galvanize themselves into a convincing counterforce against American
unilateralism. In short, Europe has remained little more than an atomized and
passive, and thus often dyspeptic, by-stander to America's aggressive Iraq
But, if Europeans are something of a known quantity, Arabs, especially wealthy,
well-educated Arabs, are in another category. What are such Arabs now
thinking about the U.S., their erstwhile ally? How have they been reacting to
Bush policy in Iraq? What have they been making of the presidential
I am certainly no Islamicist or Middle East expert. However, as I watched the
first presidential debate with a group of wealthy Arabs gathered in Berlin for
a conference, it did not take long to appreciate that for most of them, what has
been going on in Iraq has been something akin to living next to a nuclear
reactor that is melting down in a neighboring country and spilling radioactive
clouds all over the area.
I was all the more interested to watch their reaction to the presidential
debate, because many of them had been quite ardent supporters of the Bush family and, in most cases, appreciative of the way that the first President Bush
conducted the 1991 Gulf War.
Whereas Bush I had even been reluctant to push on to Baghdad in 1991 to depose Saddam Hussein after regaining Kuwait, Bush II annunciated a far
more aggressive "make-over" policy calling on the U.S. to invade countries to
depose tyrants and incubate democracy. Since the Middle East is a
congerie of royal families, petty tyrants and governments that are only
incipiently democratic, this new democratic messianism was not likely to win the
hearts and minds of many elites, never mind all those social groups with
As we walked into a conference room of the Adlon Hotel, just a stone's throw
from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, to watch the first presidential debate, a
well-educated Bahrainian resident commented, "We know reform is necessary and inevitable in the Gulf region, but it is not going to be easy. Reformers
need the help of America, but the way that the U.S. is going about 'helping' us
suggests that the government is utterly clueless about the region and how
to help. What is going on in Iraq may have been motivated by good intentions,
but, because it has excited so much fundamentalist wrath, U.S. policies are
making things worse for reformists rather than better."
"I have never seen views change so fast in the Gulf States as over the past few
years," another conference participant told me, as the debate stage in
Coral Gables, Florida, appeared on the screen. "Several years ago there was
substantial support for the US, but over the last few years that has changed.
Even many in the oil business, who really shared a common interest with the
Bushes, have changed their minds."
The Middle Eastern businessmen attending this private conference were very willing to share their views with me, but they did not want me to use their names. Even in Europe, they already must operate under a state of
suspiciousness simply for being Arabs.
As the debate began, a hush fell over the room. But as the conferees watched,
they soon began to evince a restive incredulity at the jousting match
unfolding on the screen before them.
"He seems to be almost desperately grabbing at stock stump-speech phrases," some near me muttered about President Bush's performance.
But it was those moments when Kerry was speaking and a split-screen showed Bush reacting with a look of petulant, peevishness on his face that really
seemed to provoke my fellow viewers. They began with head shaking, but soon
progressed to eye-rolling, sniggering, and grimacing with pained
When President Bush responded with a certain exasperation to Senator Kerry by
saying, "Of course, Osama Bin Laden attacked us! I know that!" as if he
were a school boy smarting under the difficult questioning of a stern master, an
Arab sitting beside me leaned over and whispered, "Are you embarrassed
Although no one had yet said it outright, the feeling in the room was
emphatically: "How could America have come to this?"
But it was not until President Bush started talking about the "moolas" -
mispronouncing the word for Islamic clerics, or mullahs, as if he were saying
the English vernacular for money, that the room really reached the ignition point
and people began throwing up their hands with incredulity.
"This president has over two hundred thousand troops in the
Middle East, but he doesn't understand the most elemental thing
about Islam," I heard one conferee exclaim in front of me, as
if Bush's mispronunciation had pushed him beyond the tipping
point from bewilderment to outright contempt.
U.S. Army soldiers secure a perimeter while troops
search vehicles for insurgent weapons in Ramadi, Iraq,
Friday Oct. 15, 2004 (AP/Wide World Photos)
At dinner that night, the room was abuzz with talk of the debate. From the
conversation it was obvious that almost everyone somehow felt a real stake in
America and how it deported itself in the world. The debate had touched them
"You know, I was educated in America and I love America," a Saudi told me. "But can you tell me from where all this ignorance is coming? I hate to see
what is happening."
"It's incredible," a Lebanese-born Arab who had lived in Kuwait and now resides in London, lamented, shaking his head dolefully. "Quite unbelievable
this Bush! How did he turn out so differently from his father?"
When I asked several conferees about their impressions of Senator Kerry, they
responded far more tentatively, clearly tempted by the prospect of an
alternative, but wary of being too hopeful about someone so unclear in concept
about his plans for Iraq and the Middle East.
"We were impressed by what we saw in the debate, but we really don't know much about him or what he would do," a Kuwaiti said uncertainly.
"What is really confusing to Arabs is the way the US keeps changing its mind
about things in this part of the world," he continued. "First they supported
Saddam Hussein against Iran and then opposed him and then they backed the Saudi royal family, before criticizing it for being undemocratic... as if
anything had changed. This sort of behavior makes it very hard for us to know
how to deal with America over the long term."
Orville Schell is the Dean of the UC Berkeley
Graduate School of Journalism. He is a noted China scholar
and the author of 14 books, including "Virtual Tibet," "Mandate
of Heaven," and "Discos and Democracy."
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