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The San Francisco Chronicle

Winning Back The World

Joel Brinkley

It seems hard to believe, but less than one year from today a new president-elect will be preparing to enter the White House.

Of course, he or she will face an unprecedented array of foreign-policy challenges: The Iraq war, global warming, Iran's nuclear program. ... But not least among them is regaining America's stature in the world.

At no other time in this country's modern history has America's reputation fallen to a point so low. Still, the new president should be heartened by a contradictory but indisputable fact: The popularity of the United States worldwide. Yes, the popularity.

I've worked in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and many other places where America's image appears to be near bottom. In many of these places, I have visited the U.S. Embassy at 9 a.m. on Thursday - or whenever the consular section is accepting visa applications.

There, lines stretch around the block and back again. And many of the prospective applicants are young men, much like those young men who march in the streets denouncing the Yankee-Zionist enemy.

Ask them, as I have: What are you doing here? Why would you want to go to America? And every time, they will say: Oh, I don't dislike Americans. I love America. I just don't like your government.

They say that even in countries like Saudi Arabia, where anti-American sentiment seems to course through the blood. Of course, 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 came from the kingdom. During the time I have spent reporting there in recent years, I could not find anyone who was unwilling to spit vitriol about the United States.

And yet, if you introduce yourself to any Saudi man, chances are he will immediately tell you that he went to college at the University of Arizona or some other school here, and wax eloquent about how much he enjoyed his time in the United States. To this day, a rite of passage for well-off Saudi men is to attend college in America.

A few months ago, an opinion column in the Arab News, an English language newspaper in Riyadh, discussed this paradox and said: "It is curious that so many Arabs remain envious of the American way of life at a time when the U.S. has demonstrated such contempt for the Arab people. The truth is that the idea of America retains a dazzling allure - though America is afflicted by a chronic moral and spiritual malaise."


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The Arab world remains deeply conflicted. And no matter what the new president does, it may be impossible to win over the fundamentalists on the Arab street. They have a different vision of the world. As Abbas Milani, an Iranian scholar at Stanford University, puts its: "These are the people who see Islam as an alternative to modernity." That may be an ideological contest the United States cannot win.

Still, much of the rest of the world wants - needs - to have good relations with America.

In Great Britain, Tony Blair lost office primarily because people thought he was too cozy with President Bush. They called Blair "Bush's poodle." And yet his successor, Gordon Brown, has hardly tried to distance himself from Washington.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won office through vocal opposition to the Iraq war - and Bush. Nonetheless, his successor, Angela Merkel, has proved to be quite friendly. And what about France? No country was a greater antagonist during the buildup to the Iraq war and beyond. But when France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited Bush at the White House this month, he declared: "I want to reconquer the heart of America."

So, is this reservoir of goodwill enough to turn things around in January 2009? Probably not completely. If I were the new president, in my inauguration speech I would announce that I am closing Guantanamo. I can't think of anything he or she could do to so quickly show the world that it's a new day in Washington.

Very soon after that, I would launch a significant new initiative on global warming - something that says: We get it now. Of course, the new president will very quickly have to begin withdrawing troops from iraq. That is a domestic demand first. But it will be welcomed abroad.

And I am sure he or she will be smart enough not to use provocative throw-away lines like "you're with us or against us" or "bring 'em on."

Winning back the world may not be as difficult as it seems. In fact the most important act will be Bush's wave goodbye as he steps aboard Marine One for the last time.

Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times.

© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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