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Behold the leviathan

As the United States prepared for a possible new conflict with Iraq, while executing its war on terrorism, turned to the streets to find out how people view the world’s mightiest nation. By Kari Huus.
Malaysians wait in a line to see "Spider Man" at a cinema in Kuala Lumpur on April 30. Many interviewees gave the United States high marks on its films.
Malaysians wait in a line to see "Spider Man" at a cinema in Kuala Lumpur on April 30. Many interviewees gave the United States high marks on its films.
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Now, more than ever, it is difficult to ignore the United States of America, the world’s sole remaining superpower. The White House is prosecuting a war on terrorism, girding for a potential new war with Iraq, demanding cooperation from allies and reordering its relationships accordingly. With America’s imposing shadow as a backdrop, MSNBC turned to the streets. In dozens of interviews with people around the world, we collected opinions on the United States, its foreign policy, its popular culture and what it is, and isn’t, doing right. Here’s a sampling of what we heard.

There is much to love about America and Americans, according to a cross section of voices abroad. Despite a perceived lack of family values, and too much violence, Americans got points for punctuality, gregariousness, mutual respect, optimism, patriotism, creativity and — for better or worse — determination.

In our interviews, there were nods to American pop culture and cuisine, including Las Vegas, Kentucky Fried Chicken, The Backstreet Boys and Hollywood films.

We love you, in principle
And beyond these icons, there continued to be remarkable respect around the globe for some of America’s most defining values and institutions — freedom of expression, fair competition, political checks and balances, idealism and low taxes — even in countries where anger toward American policies runs deep.

Abbas Kizilibash, an accountant in Islamabad, said: “American politics were founded on independence, equality and freedom. I admire the freedom Americans enjoy which is lacking in countries like Pakistan. And the freedom by which people in America express their thoughts on any topic under the sun.”

Clark Feng, an undergraduate at Beijing University, said that after freedom, the best aspects of the American system were equal opportunity and fair competition. “That’s why many students want to go to (U.S.) enterprises — because it’s based on your performance, not your background,” he said.

Jenny Hereward, a student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said: “I really appreciate American idealism. I believe the democratic ideal is really strong. I do really like the American spirit of ‘we’re going to do it ourselves,’ where I think Canada is a little more middle of the road. We don’t kick out the queen. We keep her because we’re too polite.”

What's not to love?
But that respect is eroding as anger and cynicism over U.S. foreign policy grows.

In many interviews, it was clear that the sympathy generated by the Sept. 11 attacks has receded. In its place is a rising anxiety about how the United States is conducting its war on terrorism. In Muslim countries, there is a palpable fear that the United States is — by design — waging a war on Muslims.

Those interviewed were not asked questions about Iraq, but they had much to say about the subject anyway — and virtually none of it was supportive of the aggressive U.S. approach to disarming Saddam Hussein. Many people suggest that all thedramaover Iraq and the war on terrorism is a pretext for the United States to extend its economic and military reach.

Sept. 11 not a blank check
After the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the victims, and outrage at the carnage and devastation. But many interviewees criticize the U.S. war on terror as overreaching, indiscriminate and opportunistic.

Tao Jing, a student at Beijing’s Institute of International Studies, said that after Sept. 11, “the United States has the right to fight against terrorism,” but its approach sometimes “seems like colonialism.” “The U.S. has unmatched power and in world politics; there are no checks and balances,” she said. “I think the United States should learn self-discipline and also listen to the voice of other countries.”

Eva Linder, a journalist in Mainz, Germany, said: “I think terrorism cannot be combated with war. Measures to ensure peace are more important — for example, help where help is needed.”

Sadia Parveen, an educational psychologist in Islamabad, Pakistan, a front-line state in the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, said the U.S. response has been too severe. “Until or unless they are very sure about (a person’s guilt), only then should they kill him. ... They bomb Afghanistan, they bomb Iraq — what the hell are they doing? They are simply murdering people.”

There were exceptions — a minority of those interviewed — who approved of the way Washington’s war on terrorism was going.

Jerry Kroll, a businessman in Vancouver, gave the United States a positive review for defending its interests and fighting terrorism, all in a “fairly responsible” manner.

Israeli Gli Levin in Tel Aviv saw the U.S. war on terrorism as a necessary evil: “I think the free world is under threat, and the threat is horrible. ... So America I feel is doing what leaders should do. America is now the world leader.”

Yu Fuchun, a businessman in Beijing, echoed that sentiment: “I think that America has assumed the role of world policeman. ... At present, I feel that this is a good thing. If there is no policeman taking charge, the world will be disorderly, right? After all, the U.S. is highly civilized and developed.”

Iraq on the brain
MSNBC asked no one specifically about Iraq, but concerns about a war with Baghdad repeatedly came up. The debate over a new resolution on Iraq was under way at the United Nations when the interviews were conducted, but that didn’t seem to dispel feelings that Washington is bent on war with Baghdad:

Jenny Hereward, the UBC student, said: “I think we are in a really scary situation right now, and I think we really need to act together. Doing anything too extreme or too quickly or too hotheaded could have really horrible repercussions.

Mohammed Arif, a salesman in Islamabad, Pakistan, focused on U.S. motives in its conflict with Iraq: The United States “wants to go to war against Iraq, they talk about biological weapons. ... Their whole game is oil. Iraq is one of the world’s biggest oil producers. In Afghanistan, there is gas. ... That’s the whole game.”

“The terrorist attacks are indicative of tensions that have been boiling for a long time. ... Throwing that match into the gas, I think it could blow really big.”

Raul Martinez, a computer engineer in Mexico City, said: “America is promoting war, promoting violence. ... Going to war with Iraq will only kill innocent people. I don’t know (what President Bush should do to avoid war), but bombing an entire country is not the way.”

Fardous Ahmed Mandy Shehaby, a housekeeper in Egypt, said: “The U.S. ... is picking on and magnifying Iraqi’s mistakes even though they have accepted the return of the inspectors. It wants to fight so it can control the Arab Gulf countries and the whole world.”

Muslim street
To many Muslims the threat of military action against Baghdad is merely the latest evidence that the United States has an anti-Muslim agenda. U.S. foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has spiraled over the last two years, had already generated widespread resentment.

NBC’s Charlene Gubash, who conducted interviews in Cairo, said Egyptians are so angry with the United States that she had trouble getting people to even speak to an American news crew — in striking contrast to before the United States launched its war on terror.

“In Egypt, there is a grass-roots hatred of U.S. foreign policy which is not seen at the government level,” said Gubash.

Principle vs. policy
To many of those interviewed, the U.S. foreign policy and what is seen as the high-handedness of the Bush administration is all the more infuriating because it seems to clash with the America’s most deeply held principles.

David Tadmor, a lawyer in Tel Aviv, said: “What I find amazing really is the extent to which Americans are sure about their way, about their values, about their political system. They know that it is the best. If you look at other western nations in Europe, and even in Israel, there’s a strong sense of self-criticism, skepticism, questions that are being raised. Not in America — they are sure that they are right.”

Matvei Machalkin, computer systems manager in Moscow, said of U.S. policy toward Iraq: “In America they are always shouting ‘democracy, democracy,’ “Well, then give other countries democracy.”

Interviews were contributed by NBC and MSNBC producers in Cairo, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Islamabad, Mexico City, Moscow, Havana, Vancouver and Mainz, Germany.