Poll: Bush Near Bottom - Tough Guy Image Hurt U.S. Reputation genre: Polispeak

If one reads and reviews enough polls, one can begin to piece together an understanding of the factors that determine the public's perceptions of the politicians who are the focus of these surveys. A new poll designed to measure the confidence in a number of world leaders and the impact of the policies they promote suggests the proletariat has a rather dismal view of the powerful players who currently occupy the global stage.

When looking specifically at the George Bush presidency and his management of the measurable surge in sympathy for America post 9/11, the extent of the subsequent free fall is not only startling; it is a scathing commentary on the presidents propensity to squander good will by employing a mind set one might associate with the lack of diplomacy that characterized America's Wild West.

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From Newsweek:

As President George W. Bush limps through his lame-duck year, it won't surprise you to read that he's hugely unpopular. Now a new poll taken in 20 countries by WorldPublicOpinion.org and released exclusively to NEWSWEEK confirms the world's low opinion of the president--but adds a twist. No other major world leader enjoys significantly greater trust abroad. In a sense, they're all Bushes now.

Just as striking are the leaders who do best, albeit by a slim margin: Vladimir Putin, Gordon Brown and Hu Jintao. That's one democrat and two dictators. In other words, the bosses of what are often cast as the biggest, baddest authoritarian states--China and Russia--are among the planet's most trusted officials. That should seriously alarm the leaders of the West, and particularly President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of State, who have made the export of democracy a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

While it might be exaggerating to call this the year of the autocrats, the fact is that the poll found most of the world now seems to have more confidence in undemocratic than democratic leaders. The war of ideas may not be over, and a close reading of the poll suggests there's still room to turn things around. But at this point, the West clearly isn't winning the battle for influence--and freedom, to borrow Bush's phrase, is not reigning.

On average, only 23 percent of foreign respondents express "a lot of " or "some" confidence in Bush, and only Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does worse (at 22).

What explains this universal vote of no confidence? The short answer is a serious bout of global pessimism: most people polled seem very unhappy about the state of the world.

What's harder to grasp is why Hu and Putin did relatively well--better than any democrat but Brown--in other countries. Kull, the director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, argues that the poll shouldn't be read as reflecting a global endorsement of the authoritarians; though they did score slightly better than Bush and Sarkozy, they did so by narrow margins (less than 10 percentage points).

Larry Diamond of Stanford's Hoover Institution, a foremost democracy expert, suggests another, more worrisome reason for Putin's popularity. Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, he argued that the wave of liberation that followed the end of the cold war has stalled, leading to a "democratic recession".

Add in the damage that the Iraq War has done to U.S.-style democracy promotion, and the result is a global slide in the public's faith in democracy as a system--and in democratic leaders as individuals. More and more voters are embracing tough officials (like Putin or Venezuela's Hugo Chávez) at home and abroad. And while majorities worldwide still think democracy is the best form of government, that support is also dropping.

Even if one felt justified to argue that George Bush is misunderstood around the world (which I wouldn't argue), one cannot deny the damage caused by the mishandling of the war in Iraq, the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the attempts to nuance the definition of torture, and the decision to skirt the directives of the Geneva Convention. Truth be told, each of these decisions served to undermine the world's perceptions of the principles that underlie democracy. The fact that the Bush administration carried out these directives with a cavalier cockiness only exacerbated the suspicions and the skepticism.

While I suspect that many of the respondents have no great love for the likes of Putin and Chavez, they may well feel that the devil they know is less threatening than the leader who masquerades as the divinely inspired decider they've come to mistrust. In fact, George Bush's preoccupation with the politics of polarization likely forced a number of respondents to make judgments about him and his countrymen that would have previously been afforded the benefit of the doubt. Take a look at the analysis of a prior poll as well as that of the newly released data.

From Newsweek:

A survey released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that in 21 countries, including traditional U.S. allies, most populations now have overwhelmingly negative views of America. Meanwhile, as Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, Russia's prime minister has turned himself into an appealing icon for all those who object to the perceived arrogance of Washington and its allies.

No one generates confidence from the world. If an American steps in and says, 'I'm going to play by the old rules; here's an agenda for how we can work together,' that will be attractive everywhere." Nothing's guaranteed, of course, and digging the United States out its hole won't be easy. But the right person with the right message--say, a certain young senator who preaches a gospel of hope, or his colleague from Arizona, who's promised to take on "restore the world's faith" in the United States and its principles by working closely with U.S. allies--may find a surprisingly attentive audience.

Truth be told, the poll simply reinforces the view of an overwhelming majority of Americans (eighty two percent) that George Bush's America has is on a decidedly wrong track. The data also signals a need for change should the United States hope to maintain its role as a trusted world leader.

The choice is simple. We will once again lead the world when we recommit ourselves to living our democratic principles and refusing to accept the misguided belief that their suspension can serve to preserve and protect them. In the end, the exportation of democracy cannot be achieved by efforts to impose it. Democracy is imported when those who lack it can look to the example of those nations that best represent it.

George Bush's tough guy image may have bolstered his own ego, but it has damaged the standing of America. The fact that John McCain plans to continue with more of the same is a risk America can ill-afford. While the horrible loss of life on 9/11 cannot be replaced, voters have the ability to restore the confidence the world has willingly bestowed upon this great nation for decades. A John McCain victory in November would be another in a long string of self-defeating decisions. We mustn't go there.

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