The View from Bangkok…. Last

The View from Bangkok….

Last night I stopped at an outdoor bar in the steamy Phat Pong market area, ordered a coke and watched studiously as Colin Powell did all he could to convince the world that everyone except the US and the UK have it all wrong when it comes to Iraq in general and Saddam in particular. My heart really went out to him, first because it’s obvious what he’s up against in terms of world opinion, and second because it was so clear that, earnest though he was, he didn’t have what is needed to shift world opinion on such a massive scale. No smoking gun, no “I’ll wait for your answer until hell freezes over” moment of truth. It seemed as though the speakers who followed hadn’t heard a word he said.

I am neither pundit, intellectual, academic nor foreign policy expert, so there is little I can offer of any great depth in regard to Iraq. What I can do is comment on how this is being perceived outside of the US. I can also talk about it from a public relations perspective.

It hurts to have to say the entire operation is looked upon with such contempt, such scorn, derision and suspicion by everyone with whom I discuss it, be it in China, Singapore, Hong Kong or Thailand, that I have to conclude the US is in deep trouble when it comes to its public relations, its “packaging,” if you will. That sounds trivial, but it isn’t. It makes all the difference.

No one I talk to believes we need to go to war, and I am leaning that way myself. It’s a hoax, in their eyes. They all see our president as a fool and a jackass and a liar, and I am absolutely amazed at how many times I’ve heard the words, in one form or another, “If only Bill Clinton were still president.”

In China, where I don’t have cable TV, everything I hear from the media is (obviously) state-manufactured, and it’s no surprise to hear the same line about how we need to give the UN inspectors more time, blah blah blah. Okay, that’s state-controlled CCTV. But here in Bangkok the one English-language news source in my hotel is the BBC, and I swear, it is not really that different from CCTV! I don’t like Bush myself, but I still blush when I hear how slanted virtually all of the stories are against him and the Iraq situation. How many times in one day can they tell us that Tony Blair is endangering his political reputation and trust by supporting Bush? How many times can they tell us, often in deviously subliminal ways, that war against Iraq is unjustified? A lot of times, trust me.

No matter how equivocal I feel about the inevitable war, I need to stress again that from a PR perspective, Bush has failed miserably and I can’t imagine the US persona ever having been more gruesome than it is today. From the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to the apparent disrespect for individual rights (and I repeat, apparent — it’s a question of perception, which may not be the same as reality but is always a more powerful factor) to the drum-beating for a war that has not been clearly justified to the apparent double standard when it comes to North Korea’s WMD vs. Iraq’s — all of these things combined make the government of George W. Bush singularly unappealing and untrustworthy to the outside world.

So is it any surprise that we are now finding it difficult to impossible to sway world opinion to our side as we prepare for the big invasion? Bush’s pre-September 11 go-it-alone insistence on giving the finger to the Kyoto Treaty, the nuclear arms limitations accords and (again apparently) the environment all amounted to bridge-burning on an unprecedented scale. We have simply never, ever exuded such in-your-face arrogance before, and now we expect those who were on the receiving end to forget all about it and dance to Bush’s tune. (And whether Bush was right or wrong about the treaties isn’t the issue; it’s how he appeared to the world when he rejected them.)

There are some final points about this I want to make, but am too tired to write cogently. I’m going to sleep on it and return in the morning.

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