The Magazine

The Democrats' Popularity Fetish

Global approval is overrated.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Also disconcerting to many around the world is Obama's promise--articulated in a debate last August--to meet with a variety of anti-American dictators without preconditions. He has since tried to backtrack from this off-the-cuff remark, yet its utterance showed Obama's remarkable hubris--his apparent belief that seemingly intractable world problems will be easier to solve simply by dint of his charming personality. He is far from alone in this belief. Writing recently in the Boston Globe, Mark Oppenheimer suggested that "given Obama's popularity abroad, it's possible to imagine that his meetings would embolden pro-American or pro-Western forces wherever he went."

Yet negotiating with tin-pot tyrants is a double-edged sword. For every despot a President Obama meets with, he runs the risk of demoralizing the democracy activists suffering under the despot's boot, and the neighboring countries threatened by said tyrant's hegemony. An unconditional meeting with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, for instance, would rightly anger Colombians, as Chávez's Venezuela has provided assistance to Colombia's antigovernment FARC guerrillas.

Ah, but then there is the Bush foreign policy, Obama partisans argue. It's true that the Iraq war is exhibit A for America haters around the globe, yet it's unclear how Obama's solution--complete withdrawal in little over a year and unconditional negotiations with the Syrians and Iranians--will win us popularity. Leaving Iraq at the pace the Democrats propose would very likely throw the country into chaos, and the people most obviously pleased by this policy would be the Iranians.

Yet let us assume that it is Bush's foreign policy that has earned the evident displeasure with the United States expressed in many countries around the world. Voters desiring to reverse this trend should then give a second look to John McCain, for the Republican's worldwide appeal has been badly underestimated. In March, McCain toured through Europe and the Middle East, and won winning headlines wherever he traveled. The Guardian, a newspaper hardly known for its pro-American or pro-Republican sympathies, noted that "Mr. McCain should not be dismissed as Bush mark two" because he is "made of sterner stuff and he has a lifetime of engagement with the outside world --and the scars to prove it--that gives him the moral seriousness Mr. Bush so lacks." And in the past several weeks, McCain has toured Canada, Mexico, and Colombia in an attempt to highlight--to its potential victims abroad--the differences between his pro-trade agenda and the protectionist pandering of his opponent. McCain has distinguished himself from President Bush on a variety of issues--from the closure of Guantánamo to global warming--that are frequently cited in the litany of alleged American misdeeds that Obama will fix.

Ultimately, it remains questionable whether American voters should concern themselves much with "global opinion." In any case, so committed are Obama supporters to the belief that Bush has lowered America's standing to an unprecedented extent that they cannot explain the election of pro-American leaders in Italy (Silvio Berlusconi), Germany (Angela Merkel), and France (Nicolas Sarkozy). Partly because of their candidate's multi-ethnic background, and partly because of their hatred for Bush, many Obama supporters have a wildly overconfident view of their candidate's powers, one that assumes his emergence onto the world stage will, in the candidate's own phrase, begin to heal the planet. It won't.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor at the New Republic.