The Whole World's Watching genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

As we await the returns on this Election Day, this may be the most watched election in recent history...and most of those watchers don't even live here in the United States. Howard Fineman provides his thoughts on the topic in a new article that can be found online at Newsweek. From my own perspective, when I traveled around the world just after the 2004 reelection of George Bush, it was clear to me that many foreigners didn't understand the outcome of the election. Many of those I encountered wondered if they no longer understood the American mindset and the American people. Many times I was asked if most Americans actually supported the policies of President Bush.

Keep in mind that the view of America in the rest of the world focuses primarily on our foreign policy; making it more difficult for foreigners to understand the impact that our left / right divide may have on elections. In other words, we may understand the nuances of our "culture war" and how that plays into voter decisions but the vast majority of outsiders can't relate to that dynamic...especially in Europe where they typically draw a more distinct divide between church and state. That makes today's election all the more significant.

Do we believe in the president’s war in Iraq, or not? The world wants to know. It will react accordingly.

Our elections have never really been our own; the world always has sought lessons and leverage here. That is even more the case now, in the aftermath of 9/11, in the midst of what some call the “clash of civilizations," at a time when capital, data and ideas flow across what used to be borders. We invented the idea that public opinion governs. The way we conduct our elections, and the outcomes of them, matters to the world helped bring into being.

Do Americans care what the rest of the world thinks of us? Even if they do, will that influence how we vote? Talking to voters this year I was struck by the extent to which they were thinking in global terms—about terrorism, trade, the planetary environment, music and culture.

In the absence of another idea, most Americans accepted the Texan president’s “One Riot, One Ranger" theory of “taking the war to the terrorists," even, if not especially, in Iraq.

But there have been costs, and the American people are beginning to do the worldwide strategic and ethical math.

Voters are angry about the loss of American life and treasure, but many of them also worry about whether we are losing something just as precious, and as critical to our security: our sense of commanding moral mission in the world.

My own experience tells me that much of the world will view this election as an opportunity for Americans to reiterate their sense of decency and their prevailing desire to act as an impartial and influential force for peace and stability throughout the world. Let me be clear so as to avoid giving the impression that the rest of the world is made up of pacifists who would oppose the use of force under any circumstance. That's not the case and a number of those I spoke with indicated that they understood our invasion of Afghanistan and they supported that effort to extinguish those terrorists responsible for 9/11.

However, the invasion of Iraq never met with the favor of many foreigners...even though some of their governments supported the American invasion. That opposition has continued to grow as the reasons for the war in Iraq have continued to evolve (viewed by many as rationalizations) while the outcome continues to deteriorate. The following photos are from late 2004 and early 2005 and they demonstrate the level of opposition to the war nearly two years ago. It’s hard to imagine that this disfavor hasn't accelerated.


I think the above pictures give readers a sense of the opposition to the war in Iraq and what many viewed as unwarranted American aggression. Again, I want to be careful to not portray the rest of the world as pro-terrorist...they aren't and they fully accept that the U.S. has every right to pursue those responsible for 9/11. The many people I met had great sympathy for America's loss but they simply couldn't connect that loss with the necessity to invade Iraq.

I tend to agree with the following conclusion from Fineman in that I doubt there will be any simple solution to the mess in Iraq. That presents numerous problems. One, those voters and observers that may see a Democratic victory as a sign that change is coming will have high expectations. Two, once we face the mess in Iraq absent its partisan benefit, the solutions will be difficult and the outcome from any chosen course will likely be less than perfect...far less...and that may hold true for Iraq, for America, for U.S. voters, and for the rest of the world.

While I'm hoping for a Democratic victory today, I expect that tomorrow will require an abundance of hope that all those politicians in positions of power will find the will and the way to take decisive actions and lead us past this dangerous and complex juncture. The whole world will be watching.

Some analysts have argued that the vote today is not and cannot be interpreted as a referendum on Iraq. The polls show otherwise: it is the number one issue on the minds of the voters. Other analysts suggest that, even if Democrats take back the Congress, little will change in terms of Iraq policy. There will be no “cut and run" regardless—no immediate cut off of funding, no decision to set a firm timetable. So the theory goes: nothing changes.

I don’t buy any of that. If the Democrats win big, the world will assume that our policy will change somehow. No “cut and run," former President Bill Clinton said on the campaign trail, but “stop and think."

I would tell the Democrats: be careful what you wish for. The world will cheer your arrival, and then you will not only have to “stop and think," you will have to think and act.

Daniel DiRito | November 7, 2006 | 11:27 AM
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