The Jewish Vote: America’s role in the world and what’s best for Israel

What U.S. role in the world is best for Israel?

Is it to be loved, to be feared, or to be respected? The 2008 campaign provides a good lens for answering that question.

In an annual BBC poll of residents in 23 countries, based on more than 17,000 interviews, we can chart the steady decline of the American “brand” overseas. In 2005, 38 percent had a positive view of the United States, followed by 32 percent in 2006 and 28 percent in 2007. This year, there has been a slight rebound, to 32 percent positive. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the torture pictures from Abu Ghraib, and its general disdain for world opinion have taken a great toll. Even Americans are pessimistic. Of all the countries surveyed, Americans were the second least likely to say that their own country is a positive influence in the world today.

As domestic and international disapproval washes over the administration, they have taken to seeing it as a compliment or a sign of strength. White House press secretary Dana Perino argues that when you do important things that are hard, people do not like you. This is nonsense. Most people simply don’t like to be bullied or ignored.

If Israel itself had to win a popularity contest around the world, it would be in trouble. Ever since victory in the 1967 Six- Day War turned Israel from an underdog to a major regional force, the Jewish state has been demonized, attacked, insulted, and at times isolated. (Never mind that the 1973 Yom Kippur War placed Israel’s very survival in jeopardy.) So it’s not surprising that Israel is one of the least-positively viewed countries in the poll. But what’s remarkable is that there is one nation even more unpopular: Iran. While Iran may aspire to dominate the Middle East, its nuclear ambitions clearly unnerve much of the world and may prevent Iran from playing a lead role in anti-Israel coalitions. Iran’s alienation can also provide an opening for creative American diplomacy in the Middle East.

Whoever is elected president in November will have one great advantage in world opinion: He or she will not be George W. Bush. In modern times, there has been nothing like the antipathy Bush arouses overseas. Presidents of both parties have often been more popular abroad than at home (e.g., Richard Nixon, whose presidency is still revered in China and respected in Russia). Ronald Reagan rattled Europe with aggressive rhetoric in his first term, but ended up rather well regarded as far less warlike than his image suggested. George H.W. Bush was defeated for re-election, but was immensely successful, respected and liked on the world stage. Bill Clinton had his troubles at home, but won plaudits for his peace work in Ireland and his military intervention in Bosnia. Even the Vietnam War caused more distress within the United States than it did overseas. By comparison, the Iraq war has antagonized and energized the hatred of a whole generation of people abroad against America.

The trick for the new president will be to assess where he or she stands relative to Bush. For John McCain, the problem is that in drawing closer to the Bush administration, he may continue its belligerence. This will come as a great disappointment to nations that expect him to be more diplomatic than Bush. Singing “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” is hardly the prelude to a new diplomacy. For the two Democrats, the opposite problem exists: that they will so reject Bush’s foreign policy that they aim too hard to be loved in the world.

Machiavelli wrote that it is better to be feared than to be loved. Reagan used to say about the American role in the world that it is good to be loved, but it is better to be respected. Given American ideals, Reagan’s formulation seems preferable to Machiavelli’s. An America that is well liked and well respected is a great asset for Israel, although a little fear now and then is not a bad thing.

Once the Iraq war winds down, Guantanamo’s prison is closed, and torture is abandoned as American policy, the next president will have a golden opportunity to reshape the Middle East in a way that enhances Israel’s security. This does not mean the reshaping envisioned by the neoconservatives who built the Iraq war on a pipe dream of a host of democratic states in the Middle East all singing Israel’s praises in a chorus authored by the United States.

Back here on the planet Earth, the real scenario probably means talking with Iran, — but with no military options off the table — using Iran’s unpopularity as a wedge to change its behavior. Because of the Bush administration, it is difficult for nations to work with the United States to mix carrots and sticks with Iran. A respected United States, which leads rather than bullies, can do more to change the scene than all the invasions in the world.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. You can read his daily blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign,