It's an ancient dream of empire-builders to unify the world, but George W. Bush's way of being a uniter, not a divider, is surprising and unique—he's united the world against himself. It should come as no surprise to anyone paying a shred of attention—that is, anyone outside Bush's inner circle—that the man is hated almost everywhere, for plausible reasons and bad ones alike. This would be bad news for Bush, if he cared. (His care is probably negative: he'll campaign as the man who stands tall against flabby, unreliable, or downright loathsome furrners.) Bush's abysmal reputation is much worse news for America. However bad the bad reasons for hating him, anyone who devotes a moment's thought to the problem of blocking, defeating, and uprooting the murderous legions of Islamist fundamentalism knows that hatred of America is a gift to terrorists present and future.
The fancy term for what America has squandered in the past year and a half or so is legitimacy. On March 2, the neoconservative Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post: "The problem the United States faces today is…a problem of legitimacy." On April 11, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times of "a staggering legitimacy deficit." But some of our pundits, even the best, underestimate the revulsion against American policy and whatever they think, rightly or wrongly, drives it. The estimable Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post on April 10, "the war on terror is really a war of ideas. And I'm not sure we are winning it." Not sure?
I've just returned from 7 weeks abroad, traveling in Greece, Turkey, and India, and I'm sure we're losing it. I lectured to journalists, students, faculty, and businessmen. I picked as many conversations as possible. I did not pretend to be a Canadian: I went out of my way to tell anyone who asked that I was an American, and encountered no personal hostility whatever. Neither did I encounter a single good word about George W. Bush and his Iraq venture.
In Athens, a bold law professor who defended the Bosnia intervention (in a country that sided with the Serbs as fellow sufferers in Orthodoxy) and one year ago argued staunchly in favor of the Iraq war now thought that Bush had botched it beyond belief.
In New Delhi, an influential Indian businessman of my acquaintance—no man of the left but a market-loving, union-hating man of wealth who went to high school and university in the United States—groaned at the mention of Bush's Iraq operation. He was crystal-clear that America's cross to bear was specifically George W. Bush.
Some pundits diffuse responsibility for America's sinking fortunes. The conservative Kagan, in the article I quoted, called the legitimacy problem one "that neither began with nor will end with the Bush administration." In the crudest sense, that's true. But the gulf between everyone else and the United States has gotten much, much deeper under the current dispensation. One way to measure it is to note the distinction that kept coming up between better and worse Americans: specifically, between Bill Clinton and Bush.
In 10 or so shop windows in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, in a small Turkish town and in two Indian cities, I came across photos of Hillary, Chelsea, and Bill Clinton greeting local merchants. Across Greece, Turkey, and India, I came across a grand total of one Bush poster, above a merchant's shop—and this was of the senior Bushes, George W.'s parents. Clinton must be the most esteemed person in the world. George W. Bush must be the most despised.
A secular social-democratic columnist for the moderately Islamist Turkish daily Zaman said to me passionately (in the presence of America's consul general in Istanbul): "Take this message home. Clinton was beloved here. We didn't even understand how Bush could win without a majority vote. But one thing is clear: Since Bush arrived, the prestige of the United States has suffered a terrible loss."
A men's-room attendant in Kappadokya, the weird and glorious post-volcanic rock-and-cave zone in the middle of Anatolia, asked me where I was from.
"New York. America."
"Ah. You have many problems."
He didn't sound like a hater. "What do you think of the war in Iraq?"
"We don't like it," he said."Why every time war on Muslim people?"
I decided to let that pass. "What will happen now?" I asked lamely.
He shrugged. "Not good."
It mattered little what subject I spoke on in Turkey, or whether the locale was governmental Ankara or industrial Bursa or cosmopolitan Istanbul. I might be lecturing on media, globalization, and democracy; or on media saturation; or on war reporting since Vietnam, and the same questions came flying: Are the U.S. media able to give factual information about the Iraq war? What does the U.S. Greater Middle East project mean, really? Why was Bush misleading the American public?
Turkish papers of varying persuasions run variously unflattering photos of Bush as a matter of course. Left-wing, center-right, moderate Islamists, young, middle-aged, you name it—crusading America scares them. These people admire our universities. (Some attended them. Some want to.) They like free expression. They don't "hate our values." They're not ill-disposed toward NATO. If wishes were votes, Turks would not be a swing state: It would heartily send John Kerry to Washington.
When I met the executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in the industrial center of Bursa, Turkey's fourth-largest city, he'd just returned from a Turkish-American confab in Washington. He spoke of Pentagon and State Department officials with respect. He didn't sound like a ranter. Yet he said that such "discussions" were monologues.
In Ankara, the tough-talking PR chief of Zaman—circulation 200,000 and growing—said firmly, "America has lost the respect of the world." I made plain my opposition to Bush's war, but also my distaste for the pro-Saddam propaganda I'd seen on al-Jazeera's English-language Web site. After what diplomats might call a full and frank exchange of views, he said to me, "I don't know whether this kind of discussion will be possible in 20 years."
Zaman is the sort of paper the heart-and-mind winners want to see thriving—the alternative to bin Laden in a mainly Muslim society, a NATO member at that. U.S. policy sends them around the bend.
And this was before the Abu Ghraib pictures blanketed the world. Tamer Korkmaz, a Zaman columnist, wrote the other day: "The episodes in the Abu Ghraib House of Torture have rendered all speeches on 'civilization' that the U.S. will deliver to the world empty from now on."
Another Zaman columnist, Ali H. Aslan, plainly not an America-hater, wrote (in the Web site's stiff translation, slightly fixed by this writer): "The U.S., which might be considered as the founder of the international system based on human rights and the rule of law through its pioneering efforts after World War II, has been thoughtlessly destroying the principles and institutions it built….The Bush administration overshadows the U.S.'s constructive policies. Although, contrary to their claim, democracy and human rights are not the primary goals of U.S. foreign policy strategy—they are more often advertised than actually enacted—America's contributions to those who seek these ideals in the world cannot be denied. The frequent mentioning of these sublime ideals by an administration that is so disliked in the world, and in the context of a controversial war like Iraq, especially in the wake of the latest torture scandal, gives a boost to the opponents of freedom."
Aslan worried aloud that "the angel within America" is going to be "defeated by the devil inside." The world is populated by people who know the difference. They've been hung out to dry. How much longer will Greeks, Turks and Indians root for our better angel with sinking hearts?
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of 10 books including, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and most recently, Letters to a Young Activist.