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Kerry May Be Foreign Favorite for U.S. President

For all the clumsiness in his claim, John Kerry (search) is hard to refute on the suggestion he'd win a popularity contest against President Bush abroad.

Republicans have demanded he name names of leaders supposedly supporting him, chastised him for taking politics beyond the water's edge and pointed out that overseas cheering sections don't make a whiff of difference in a U.S. presidential campaign.

But the central point that Kerry made and probably wishes he didn't has stood largely unchallenged: that opposition to Bush is widespread in foreign capitals and a variety of politicians are privately — in a few bold cases, publicly — rooting for the president to lose.

Tensions between Bush and some Western European leaders are palpable. Arab governments lead a geographically diverse chorus of gripes about the Iraq war and are unhappy about the halting Mideast peace process. America's neighbors to the south saw a too-heavy U.S. hand in the departure of Haiti's leader. The grievances go on.

At least in his rhetoric, Kerry says what many abroad want to hear — he'd seek out treaties spurned by Bush, make the United States a partner rather overlord in Iraq's postwar security, tend frayed alliances and stop throwing U.S. weight around without provocation.

But Michael Mandelbaum, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations (search), said foreign policy is so driven by circumstance and Kerry's views are so untested that foreigners are hard-pressed to make a considered judgment about Republican and Democrat.

"Almost without exception, other countries, including allies, are surprised by foreign policies carried out by a new administration, and usually unhappily surprised," he said, recalling President Clinton's own set of tensions with Europe and beyond. "This administration is relatively unpopular, but I would still think that under the eyes of eternity, this is pretty normal."

Beyond leaders, foreign populations were found to be deeply hostile toward Bush in an international poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project (search). Majorities in all eight foreign countries surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Bush, with negative ratings ranging from 57 percent in Britain to a nearly unanimous 96 percent in Jordan.

In Pakistan, 7 percent viewed Bush favorably, while terrorist leader Usama bin Laden won favor with two-thirds.

Foreign leaders generally have stuck to the time-honored tradition of staying publicly neutral in another country's election. But Spain's new socialist leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, openly backed Kerry during his own campaign.

In January, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (search) reprimanded his defense minister for saying he would vote Democratic if he were American.

Last week, Kerry got one endorsement too many when former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (search), a respected figure in the Muslim world but one with a history of anti-Jewish comments, endorsed him.

"I think Kerry would be much more willing to listen to the voices of people and of the rest of the world," Mahathir said.

The Kerry campaign quickly stated the senator "rejects any association with (the) avowed anti-Semite whose views are totally deplorable," and went farther to try to put the fuss over foreign backers to rest.

"This election will be decided by the American people, and the American people alone," Kerry adviser Rand Beers said. "It is simply not appropriate for any foreign leader to endorse a candidate in America's presidential election. John Kerry does not seek, and will not accept, any such endorsements."

Kerry had contended he'd heard from foreign leaders who told him privately, "You've got to beat this guy," then steadfastly refused to identify them, to the point where critics accused him of making it up.

Richard Holbrooke (search), U.N ambassador in the Clinton administration, said quiet support for the senator is the norm in foreign political circles and he did nothing wrong in giving voice to them. "Anywhere in the world you go everyone says that," he said. "The rest of the world is uneasy about American leadership."

Countering him in that TV interview, Richard Perle (search), assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, said foreign interests "are not the same as the interests of the American people, which the president is committed to protecting and defending."

In other words, if the claim is true, it doesn't matter.

For his part, Bush maintains close personal and political ties with British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), his main ally in Iraq; has kept a solid relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) despite some bumps; and has forged bonds with Eastern European leaders seeking to join NATO and Asian leaders enlisted in the anti-terrorism war.

The aftermath of the Iraq war has strained some of those friendships. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (search), an important U.S. ally, now says his country was misled about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. He said he might pull Polish troops out of Iraq early, then backed away from that.