The international image of the United States is critical in obtaining consent and/or support from overseas actors that might affect the advancement of the U.S. government’s international policy preferences. Coupled with the compelling nature and impact of mass communication, and news media in particular, international public opinion understandably signifies and creates either an acceptance of, or an opposition to, the decisions and policies of U.S. leaders. This paper explores key aspects of international public opinion of the U.S. during the presidency of George W. Bush, paying attention to the international news media environment that both deterred the advancement of the U.S. government’s international goals and helped the U.S. government achieve its international objectives. Also, the paper examines the current international public opinion of the Obama presidency. Public opinion and media While public opinion shapes the political, societal and cultural frameworks of a country, it is communication, which established a difference (Glynn, Herbst, O'Keefe, Shapiro, and Lindeman 2004). This is primarily based on the fact that public opinion is communicated and imparted both to people and societies based on the influence of the media profession. The development of technologies such as print, radio, television and the internet, “fueled concerns that it had the power to sway public opinion unduly…” (Glynn et. al, 2004, p. 409). According to Glynn and her colleagues, those on the other side of the debate believe that “publics can resist such influences and indeed use media in largely beneficial ways” (2004, p. 409). It is these authors’ opinion that news media is directly connected with, and in many ways ultimately responsible for, public opinion. The media component has long been proven to be vital ground that determines whether a country and its President are positively or negatively perceived by the international public. In fact, with the enormous impact of news media, a leader, as well as his strategies and judgments, are scrutinized by the domestic and international media and their subsequent news presentations, resulting in either criticism or praise. It is under such premises and circumstances that the government and its leader must carefully regard what the news media can offer, and eventually do (or even undo). This is also under the principle that news media absolutely has the power to affect public opinion. With such influence, it will be empirically valuable for a president to formulate and perform his policies and course of action fundamentally in accordance to what and how news media views a specific event. It is therefore necessary and worthy for a president and his government to consider the established authority of news media to achieve a consenting international public opinion. Otherwise any policy or decision, however good it is, may be ridiculed or opposed outright. A number of these instances could pave the way for the downfall of the administration in the arena of public opinion.George W. Bush and the US international image crisis Jane Mayer (2004) in an article, “Contract Sport”, among other things pertaining to the US international politics under Bush presidency, addresses the question, “What exactly caused the US international image crisis?” The answer, according to the author, is fairly simple: Bush failed to form a reasonable dialogue with either domestic or international media, which resulted in the overwhelming criticism of his actions and overseas policies. Soon after Bush’s second Presidential victory, international media were quick to argue that he would finance the Iraq occupation through the election on a temporary basis, presenting the real tab afterwards for payment in a supplemental appropriation. Not only would Bush do his best that year to calm Iraq down for the election, but calm or not, the congressional conservative leadership would never, in the last analysis, allow a ‘no confidence’ vote on its standard-bearer to occur in the election year. Since Bush would attempt to calm Iraq in 2004 and since the president’s party leadership that year would protect Bush from pre-election rebuke, any purse-string oversight, to occur at all, must occur when the reality hit hardest, in 2003. That was precisely why Bush, with an eye on the election calendar, administered the shock, ice cold, right then. And when the shock hit, many in Congress in both parties did try hard to have representative democracy in this country about Iraq. To bite the bullet—and to handle things the Bush way—the president must ask the congressional holders of the purse strings for $20 billion to pay contractors (lumped in with money for the military, this was part of the $87 billion total that Bush requested) (Nagourney 2003). How should the domestic and international public understand that $20 billion? While holding forth about spending, particularly spending for big foreign construction projects like those undertaken by Halliburton and Bechtel in Iraq, Bush wisely timed his demand to the public for $20 billion to come prior to the election year. If the reaction of the general television watcher not committed to Bush could have been translated into words, it might have been “Huh? What? Did he just remove $20 billion for a bunch of contractors he’s picking?” (Farhang 2003) When the television-watching public has that kind of shocked reaction, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle hear it and factor it into their exercise of purse-string power—in particular, appropriations and the conditions upon them. Bush wanted Congress to vote an unconditional $20 billion for his picked contractors in Iraq. He camouflaged the diversion of the public’s funding to his loyal and largely unaccountable machine, but the rest of the world recognized the game of awarding contracts for loyalty, and so did the press and Congress (Nagourney 2003). International public argues that legally, President Bush achieved his ideological goals by putting as much of the occupation as possible in the hands of politically loyal and well-rewarded contractors.
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While this precluded real international support and created new impervious layers between the contractors and American public oversight, it foreshadowed the new conservative approach to projecting American power worldwide: operating not through public instruments responsible to oversight and to some extent dedicated to the public interest, but rather through privatized instruments. These private entities would do the bidding of the corporate interests ultimately responsive to the administration’s will and also, in this region, to the long-term financial incentives to make occupational machinery self-supporting. According to the popular international opinion, Bush created the circumstances for the whole process, and Bush decided what it could do and when. The proposal: Baghdad invaded by the US should be requested to pay back—some day, in return for the $20 billion people were investing up front—$10 billion. That is, give it $2 now and ask back, someday when the oil flowed like honey, only $1? Certainly in the long run, a suitably occupied Iraq would be good for a loan. That was the interesting thing about Bush’s decision to pick Iraq as the country to occupy—the interesting thing that remained after eliminating the phony association of Iraq with 9/11, and the manufactured intelligence about the imminent threat of WMD, and the mythology that a generous Bush sought oppressed Islamic peoples who would gratefully receive his Christian liberation (Cave 2001, para 4, 7). And that was the interesting difference with Afghanistan, where there at least had been a real Osama who had launched 9/11. Afghanistan needed help, it had covetous neighbors, but the country didn’t interest Bush or Cheney. Afghanistan wasn’t good for a loan, because there wasn’t oil in Afghanistan. But there was oil in Iraq—a whole lot. More than you might think given Bush and Cheney’s coyness about it—an odd reticence on their part, considering how much they talked about the rationales that evaporated. Even the old data from before the Gulf War measured proven oil reserves in the area under Bush’s Baghdad at 112 billion barrels, with oil in place at 250 billion barrels (al-Chalabi 2003). Iraq is one of the least explored among the rich oil countries, yet it possesses the most enormous and easy-to-tap fields outside the territory of America’s great friend Saudi Arabia. Certainly the Iraqis themselves had that view: when polled, they distinctly attributed Bush’s motivation in occupying their country to oil. If Baghdad never pays back that $20 billion unconditional appropriation, then the whole sum comes from American middle-class taxpayers and their children. It gets added to the national debt that must be serviced over their lifetimes. That debt service would not be paid by the rich, who had farsightedly backed Bush and it couldn’t come from the poor, from whom not much more could be squeezed. The world community showed little willingness to contribute much toward the $20 billion for Bush’s contractors. Even the Japanese—who have the world’s second largest economy and whom the American military defends for free against North Korea, China, and Russia—were slow getting up their little $1.5 billion. In the eyes of the international media, what does it mean when the Bush administration, either directly or through Bush’s Baghdad, picks the contractors? For major American companies, given the opportunities afforded by constrained competition on White House orders, government contracting law usually means cleverly boosted profits. Such contractors, staying within the law, often make generous campaign contributions for the conservative cause (Mayer 2004). They need not give to Bush—they may give to congressional Republicans. For those contracting or subcontracting firms run by Iraqis who have administration connections, government contracting law means something very different, for full-scale congressional oversight of the spending that goes through them is unlikely. Bush’s attempts to form positive international image of the US Despite all its failures on the international public arena, Bush administration has made concrete attempts to restore or at least improve the US image in the eyes of the world community. At times one could observe hints of positive shifts in the international public’s view of America. The sparks of hope could be found in famous parts of a speech that was delivered by President Bush at West Point in June 2002; in the wider appeal of his National Security Strategy presented to the public in September 2002; and in the announcement to provide greater level of international assistance (the Millennium Challenge Account), released in November 2002. Sadly enough, one can now conclude that these attempts to improve US international image through embracing human rights have been reflected only to a small degree in the U.S. international policy. For the greater past of the second half of the 20-th century, America was often a leading force for promoting the human rights ideals. USA was among the leaders in constructing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, altering the international human rights system, and voicing its power to render protection of human rights throughout the globe. At times this support for human rights was conflicting—disturbed by political issues and a strong resistance to applying international principles domestically. Nevertheless, the U.S. government still participated in a number of battles with the sole aim of protecting human rights in the world, and it contributed considerably to constructing a global accord about the significance of human rights in the international context. In its place, the Bush administration has attempted to promote human rights in countries where the war on terrorism could not be concerned, such as Belarus, Burma, and Zimbabwe.
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