In the first few days after the tsunami, most governments, including America's, faced criticism in their domestic media for being slow to recognize the scale of the catastrophe, and miserly in their response once they had. Prime Minister Tony Blair, for instance, was attacked in Britain for failing to cut short his vacation and return to take charge, or make some public statement of solidarity and concern. But many foreign commentators, as you would expect, were quick to append special criticism of America to whatever complaints they were directing at their own governments.
The BBC was not alone in comparing the Bush administration's first promises of aid, measured in the low tens of millions of dollars, with the costs of the military operations in Iraq, which stand at scores of billions and rising. That was either a meaningless comparison, or else the message had to be: "American hypocrisy exposed. The United States prefers bombs and bullets to humanitarian aid."
Well, it was hardly a question of one or the other, was it—of toppling Saddam and democratizing the country, or else helping the victims of the tsunami? And, by the way, what sense does it make to say that America is spending too much in Iraq? The plan to quell the insurgency and give Iraqis enough security to legitimize the forthcoming elections is failing, partly because the Pentagon has committed insufficient forces for a job that is much more difficult than it had hoped.
Quickly, within days of the tsunami, as the extraordinary scale of the emergency became clear, things changed. America was now promising official aid in the hundreds of millions of dollars, with additional public and private money to come. More important, it had moved an aircraft-carrier battle group to the worst-affected and least-accessible coastline, and was using helicopters to fly food and medicines in and victims out.
Japan is currently promising even more aid than America, but measuring effective spending to date, America is almost certainly the most generous foreign donor in responding to this emergency, and probably more generous by that standard than all other countries put together. (When it comes to disaster relief, the United States is accustomed to being in that position, as Secretary of State Colin Powell reminded a questioner at a recent press conference.)
Some United Nations officials complained at the outset that America was too keen to go its own way in mounting relief operations, unwilling to coordinate its efforts with other countries: Once again, the unilateralist prefers to go it alone. That charge, an echo of the recent quarrels between the administration and the U.N., must have sounded pleasing to many of America's foreign critics. It now looks pretty stupid. The U.N. has switched to praising America's operations in the Aceh province of Indonesia as a model of rapid and effective response. Meanwhile, no doubt, other governments continue to coordinate their plans.
However, America's rapidly increasing aid commitment, and its immediately effective relief efforts in Indonesia, have only opened another line of criticism: Namely, that for the White House, this is nothing more than public relations, just a cynical and belated attempt to curry favor with foreigners and improve America's image abroad, especially among Muslims.
Many of the people pressing this new line, of course, normally berate the administration for failing to do what they now accuse it of doing—attending to America's standing abroad. Their thinking seems to be that if America's government (and the Bush administration especially) takes steps to improve America's reputation, this can only be for reasons of narrow self-interest, which disqualifies it as a praiseworthy thing to do. Apparently, being well thought of abroad must be pursued as an end in itself, or else it doesn't count.
All of this whining about America's response to the tsunami provokes some thoughts on the perennially salient question of the United States and its image abroad. One conclusion is that America can expect to be criticized, more or less regardless of what it does. Another is that it is good to be well thought of—and in a world of realpolitik, it can also be a valuable strategic asset—but not as good as it is to be right.
As long as the United States is the most powerful nation on Earth, it will be widely resented. Whatever it does will always be too little or too much. Its motives will always be suspect, and its unique freedom of action will cause offense. Until China takes over, Americans will just have to live with those realities.
Admittedly, however, there are degrees of resentment, and the Bush administration has doubtless stirred global anti-Americanism to a new intensity. To the extent that this was unnecessary, it was plainly an error. America would benefit from having more allies, especially allies more willing to put themselves in harm's way, as the Bush administration has found in Iraq. America may need allies far less than other countries do, but allies can still be useful. If America can reconcile other countries to its supremacy by speaking more diplomatically, and by listening (or appearing to listen) more attentively, then, powerful as America may be, it will certainly gain by doing so.
Yet the steady focus on the harm that George W. Bush has done to America's image abroad—as if this is the most important thing—strikes me as misconceived. The president's style, his manner of dealing with people, is not the problem—not for foreigners any more than it is for critics at home. American liberals deplore Bush not because he walks with a swagger and mangles his words (annoying as those things may be) but because they disagree with him so deeply about so many things. The same goes for the foreigners who deplore him. (Although, in their case, it is also true that they perceive him to be quintessentially American. What they resent most about the country, swagger included, they see perfectly embodied in Bush.)
Put to one side the calamitous handling of postwar Iraq. Given what was believed at the time about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, was it right to go to war against that country or not? Most of Europe's governments disagreed with the Bush administration's decision to invade, not with the words in which that decision was couched.
If it was wrong to go to war, it was wrong on the merits, not because most of Europe's governments thought it was wrong. And if it was right, it was right regardless of Europe's views. It is very odd to criticize the decision to invade on the ground that it antagonized some of America's supposed friends. This drawback surely comes a very distant second to judging the merits of the case.
Exactly the same applies to other big issues that have set the administration at odds with foreign governments—issues which, to a large extent, also separate American popular opinion, and popular opinion abroad. In all of these cases, insuperable disagreements exist on the merits. The administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, for instance, its repudiation of the International Criminal Court, and its policies on the detention of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere are not matters where disagreement can be smoothed over by a more diplomatic choice of words.
The American electorate had its say on these issues in November. Maybe these particular questions were not at the forefront of every voter's mind. Still, it is safe to assume that most American voters do not want the burden of curbing worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases to fall almost entirely on the United States, as the Kyoto agreement would have required. Most do not want to see American soldiers at risk of being tried for war crimes unless it is at America's initiative and under American jurisdiction. And most care more about their own security than about the rights of prisoners taken in Afghanistan and elsewhere since September 11, 2001. It happens that most of Europe's voters disagree with them about all of these issues.
In the past four years, these questions could not be evaded. How plausible is it, then, to accuse Bush of needlessly souring America's relations with the rest of the world?
It is good to be admired, but it is more important to be right. The decision to fight Saddam looked right at the time but was discredited by mistakes before and after the fact. The administration was right to reject Kyoto, an unfair and unworkable treaty, but wrong to propose no meaningful alternative. In my view, the administration's suspicions about the International Criminal Court are mostly justified. The administration's policies on detainees—including the possibility, now being considered, of imprisoning suspects for life without ever bringing charges—are outrageous. And its rapid unilateral response to the tsunami was superb.
In every case, the substance is what matters. Debate that before worrying about global opinion.