WASHINGTON -- With the launch of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as close as 24 hours, major surveys of eight key European nations have shown a sharp rise in critical attitudes towards the United States, focused particularly on President George W.. Bush's foreign policy.
The surveys, released Tuesday afternoon by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, found that U.S. favourability ratings have plummeted over the last six months, since Pew released similar surveys of more than 40 countries worldwide that showed the U.S. image had taken a serious battering in the almost two years since Bush took power.
The plunge was not confined to countries, such as France, Germany, Russia and Turkey, which have opposed an invasion of Iraq without United Nations Security Council authorisation, but extended to those, like Britain, Spain, and Poland, whose leaders have supported Bush.
''We haven't seen anything in the polling we've looked at that is as dramatic (a change) as this,'' said Elizabeth Gross, who supervised the survey project for Pew. ''It was surprising how dramatic it was. We had seen quite a large surge of support for the U.S. after Sep. 11 (2001); it was surprising to me how thoroughly that has dissipated.''
In Poland, for example, positive views of Washington have fallen to 50 percent from nearly 80 percent just six months ago, in spite of Warsaw's leadership in gathering backing for a controversial statement in support of the U.S. policy on Iraq by a number of Central and East European countries in January.
In Italy, where President Silvio Berlusconi has also spoken in support of Bush, the proportion of respondents holding favourable views of the U.S. has declined by half over the same period - from 70 percent to 34 percent. And in Spain, whose prime minister Jose Maria Aznar participated in a one-hour war council with Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Azores Sunday, only 14 percent of respondents said they had a favourable opinion of the United States.
Even in Britain, Washington's closest ally, favourability ratings have fallen from 83 percent in 2000 to 75 percent six months ago to 48 percent today.
The surveys, which were conducted by Gallup International in the past week as it became clear that Washington was determined to go to war even if the Security Council failed to approve a resolution, found strong support among Europeans for the idea that Western Europe in particular should take a more independent approach to security and foreign policy.
They also found that ill feeling toward the United States was directed much more specifically at Bush and his policies - particularly in western Europe - than against the country as a whole, although Turks and Russians were less inclined to make a distinction. ''I think it's because they have less of a history of working directly with America and are less focused on changes in administration,'' said Gross.
France, which Bush said Sunday was most responsible for Washington's failure to get its way in the U.N. Security Council, focused its rancour most strongly on the president. More than three-quarters of French respondents told Gallup that the problem with the U.S. image was Bush's policies; only 15 percent blamed "America in general."
In Russia, only 29 percent of respondents blamed Bush, and 48 percent blamed Washington generally.
''What is being put at risk is infinitely more valuable than what is being achieved,'' said David Calleo, a major authority on U.S.-European relations at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies here. ''We now seem to be in sort of semi-warfare with the European Union, which puts at risk 50 years of American foreign policy,'' he told the 'Washington Post' on the weekend.
Even more telling was a recent statement by Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to former president George H.W. Bush, who noted that the recent debate over Iraq ''has already given us an image of arrogance and unilateralism, and we're paying a very high price for that image. If we get to the point where everyone secretly hopes the United States gets a black eye because we're so obnoxious, then we'll be totally hamstrung in the war on terror. We'll be like Gulliver with the Lilliputians.''
The new survey also appears to put paid to the controversial distinction made by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld last month that ''Old Europe'' - Germany, France and Belgium, which resisted the U.S. course to war on Iraq - was being superseded by a ''New Europe'' of Britain, Spain, Italy, and nations of Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic states.
Opposition to war in Iraq ranged from 73 percent in Poland to 87 percent in Russia. Only in Britain was opposition found to be less than 73 percent, but even there, a majority of 51 percent opposed the war compared to 39 percent who support it.
A companion poll of U.S. respondents found discomfort with Washington's isolation on the issue. Fifty-six percent of respondents wanted the administration to convince more of its allies to join in before using military force, and an equal number said the United States should get a U.N. resolution to use force before taking military action.
Indeed, that was one of the more hopeful findings of the study. Majorities or strong pluralities in the United States and five of the eight European countries said they believed the United Nations still plays an important role in international peace. In Russia, only 29 percent agreed, and in Turkey, only 23 percent.
As for the future of U.S.-West European ties, only in this country did a majority of respondents (62 percent) say the two sides should remain close. Majorities in four out of the five European nations said Europe should be ''more independent''. Two thirds called for more independence in France; 65 percent in Italy; 60 percent in Spain; and 52 percent in Germany. Just under half of Britons (48 percent) also called for more independence; that was still more than the 40 percent who said the two sides should remain close.
Ironically, most publics surveyed said that in the long run the Iraqi people will be better off and the region made more stable if Washington achieves its war aims of disarming the country and removing President Saddam Hussein. But the two countries closest to the region, Turkey and Russia, disagreed.
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