George W. Bush's New 'So?' Man


Few one-word comments better summarize how the Bush administration views American public opinion than the above reaction of Vice-President Dick Cheney to the statement by ABC's Martha Raddatz in March that "two-thirds of Americans" say the Iraq War "is not worth fighting."

As we have seen for the past seven plus years, this "So?" attitude is shared by members of the Bush administration who don't really care about what US citizens think about the policies of the 43rd president. When, to cite one of many examples, Americans were deeply concerned about the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush's most remembered role was to look at the scene of devastation from his presidential jet and praise a subordinate handling the disaster for "doing one heck of a job."

The new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James Glassman, appears to be a representative of the Bush/Cheney "So?" coterie as pertains to America's place in the world. In one of his first public statements since his swearing-in June 8 -- an article in the International Herald Tribune (June 15), a daily with a wide international readership -- Glassman writes bluntly that "in the end, global public opinion polls cannot determine the foreign policy of the United States."

In all fairness to Glassman, no novice to public diplomacy -- defined by the State Department as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- he politely does tip his hat to one its basic tenets -- that the United States should listen to what foreigners have to say. "We can listen better and, through exchanges, information programs, and ideological engagement, we can rectify the lies and misconceptions" about the U.S., he writes.

Glassman's bottom line, however, is that no matter how negatively other countries view and react to US policy, the United States government should go about doing exactly what its leaders have set out to do. Moreover, he gives no hint that, as foreign policy is formulated, world public opinion should be taken into consideration. "Foreigners," he proclaims, "recognize that the United States is the world's most powerful nation and that ultimately we will do what is in our own national interest, as we should." In other words, US might makes right, a view Mr. Glassman somehow believes is universally held by non-Americans.

Such a rigid, unimaginative perspective on policy -- and public diplomacy -- is, in fact, not in America's national interest. We live in an interconnected world where national decisions cannot be made and carried out in a vacuum. US policy must adapt to local overseas circumstances -- and public opinion abroad -- to implement those steps that are best for the United States. At a time of increased global communications, we cannot afford a "So?" approach to what the world thinks. How can it possibly help the U.S. to pursue policies hated by our increasingly small planet?

Even in the pre-Internet age, the Declaration of Independence, arguably America's first public-diplomacy document in its effort to present America's case overseas, underscored the importance of showing "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" and submitting "Facts" to "a candid world" that "prove[d]" America's right to independence. Clearly, the founding fathers took foreign public opinion seriously as they were defining the new nation's role in the world.

If the Bush administration had been inspired by the founders' respect toward other countries rather than by its conviction that "we do what we want because we're no. 1," America's standing in the world would not have deteriorated as much as it has in recent years. It is high time to abandon the Bush/Cheney "So?" attitude toward foreign public opinion and replace it with one that takes what our fellow human beings say seriously. Only then will the U.S. play the more constructive global role to which we Americans aspire.

John Brown was in the US Foreign Service from 1981 until March, 2003, when he left the State Department in opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq.

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