WASHINGTON – America's popularity abroad appeared unsteady Thursday after the president of Poland said he was "misled" about Iraq intelligence and an anti-American candidate won Spain's prime minister race this weekend by riding a wave of terror fears to victory.
A recent poll on the European continent and in the Muslim world doesn't do anything to dispute that image. It shows that America's stature in the world has fallen since the war in Iraq.
In a Pew Global Attitudes survey (search) released Tuesday, in only one of eight foreign countries surveyed did a majority give a favorable rating to the United States. That nation was Great Britain.
Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco, France, Germany and Russia were not so kind. In Turkey, 63 percent of those polled had a very or somewhat unfavorable opinion. In France, the number was 62 percent. In Germany, 59 percent.
Although the poll had some encouraging signs, overall it showed a decline in America's international prestige in the year since the war in Iraq, highlighting the challenges ahead as the U.S. prosecutes the war on terror.
"The results of this survey are as gloomy as the weather outside," Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, commented on a cold, rainy day in Washington. "We've never seen ratings as low as this for America."
It didn't take polls however, to clue in the United States to the growing hesitation by would-be allies.
In Spain, the newly-elected Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (search) pledged after his victory to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq and turn away from the United States in favor of stronger ties with France and Germany, who opposed the war.
The vote came two days after a series of bombs killed 202 on the Madrid railways.
On Thursday, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (search) told a small group of European reporters that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein, but "I also feel uncomfortable due to the fact that we were misled with the information on weapons of mass destruction."
The quotes caused quite a stir in Washington before Kwasniewski's office released a statement saying the Polish president meant that it was Saddam who "misled the world in believing that he had had the weapons." Bush and Kwasniewski held a long-scheduled phone call Friday morning in which the two men "affirmed their commitment to coalition operations in Iraq and to continuing to battle terror," according to a senior Bush administration.
Radek Sikorski, executive director of the American Enterprise Institute's (search) New Atlantic Initiative, said despite the false alarm of Poland's seeming "preparation of an exit strategy," the inaccurately reported comments were believable for a reason.
Sikorski said despite Poland's contribution to the war, and its taking the lead of international troops there, the Polish public "was never on board. Poles were 2-to-1 against the war in Iraq.
"In Europe, they don’t see it as part of the war on terrorism," said Sikorski, a former Polish deputy minister of foreign affairs. "They see it as a war of choice. As a favor we gave to the Americans."
The seeming split between Europe and the United States is no easy feat, said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, chairwoman of the Pew Global Attitudes Project and a John Kerry supporter.
"Usama bin Laden has managed to do something that 40 years of communism did not do: divide Europe from the U.S," she said.
With European mistrust of America increasing, "growing percentages of Europeans are seeking more independence from the United States with regard to foreign policy and security," Kohut said.
According to the poll, 50 percent of British, 67 percent of Russians, 70 percent of Germans and 90 percent of French said it would be a good thing if the European Union were as powerful as the United States.
Albright, who served in the Clinton administration, said although "the challenges ahead are indeed daunting," attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic need to change, with America being less dismissive and Europe toning down its perception of competitiveness.
She added that unity is necessary in these troubled times.
"There is a huge chasm between the Muslim world and the rest of us, and the major challenge we have is to lessen that chasm, and we need the unity of the Western world to do that. And we don't have that unity," she said.
Former Bush administration official Patrick Cronin acknowledged that the poll numbers show a failure of public diplomacy at a time when the United States needs its allies.
Real power includes "the ability to influence others. The U.S. has not done a good job of that. That's not a political statement, but an empirical fact," said Cronin, formerly of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But the White House and other American officials continue to urge allies to remain resolute even in times of trouble.
"There are very real challenges that we face, and the president's message is that it's important to work together on these important challenges. We all must work together to face the threats that exist in this day and age," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Wednesday in reaction to the Pew poll.
"The war on terrorism is going to go on for a while and we need to have a united international coalition," said Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. "We need to care what the rest of the world thinks about us, and when we exercise our power, we need to communicate that we care what the rest of the world thinks."
While opinion on the war in Iraq was very negative outside of the United States — with respondents from some countries surveyed saying the war in Iraq had a negative impact or no effect on the war on terrorism — observers were able to find some encouraging signs in the poll.
In Turkey, in March 2003, just 12 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the United States. In this year's poll, that number rose to 30 percent. Support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism also grew among Turks in the last year.
"Anti-American attitudes can be changed, but it will take time and effort on our part to do so," Albright said. "Turkey has reversed slightly and it could be because they had some terror incidents."
Cronin added that although Spain's initial reaction to the blasts in Madrid was to support a party that pledged to distance itself from the United States, the instant reaction may not signal a long-term shift in attitudes.
"Before the Madrid bombing there was less of a sense of urgency on terrorism than in the United States. It would be interesting to see what the next round of polls shows," Cronin said.