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Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004

Orville Schell
Dean, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
Friday, October 22, 2004; 11:00 AM

As Americans decide whether to re-elect their president or choose a new leader, FRONTLINE/World gives voters an international perspective on the 2004 presidential race. Featuring new Web-exclusive reports each Tuesday through the Nov. 2 election, "Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004" illustrates how others in the world view the U.S. election.

This Week:Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, provides a behind-the-scenes view of a private conference of Arab leaders in Berlin, as they watch the first U.S. presidential debate. He gauges this powerful group's reactions to President Bush and Senator Kerry, as well as their response to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.


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Readers Are Talking About...

Read Schell's report: Germany: Watching the Debate.

Friday, Oct. 22 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss his reports.

"Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004" will feature stories by young "backpack journalists," in addition to award-winning veterans such as Lowell Bergman and Orville Schell.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Clarendon, Va.: Great article. Did the Arabs that you spoke with have any opinion on the candiates' Christian faith? Are they concerned at all by GW Bush and some in the administration's belief in the biblical Endtime prophecy and how that affects foreign policy?

Orville Schell: Ironically, some of the Arabs were Christian Arabs from Lebanon and Jordan. But even in this land where fundamentalism is far from uncommon, educated Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim, seemed somewhat perplexed to find such extremist religious sentiment enthroned within the highest reaches of power in Washington.

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Quebec, Canada: It seems rediculous for Arabs to criticize U.S. foreign policy while they continue to brutally occupy and commit genocide in Sudan.

Orville Schell: While it is true that the Arab world, and indeed the Muslim world, have much to reflect on when it comes to extremism, it would be wrong to think that the entire Arab world or Islamic world (which is somewhat different) all feel that they have common purpose with the jihadists.

Just as in our own country where many are pretty horrified by the resurgence of fundamentalism -- where reason, knowledge, the media, even education are all too often viewed with circumspection -- so too in the Middle East, there are not a few people who are also very offended by the way in which extremists have seized the frontline.

However, one would have to say that in the Middle East, it is often harder for these moderate voices to make themselves heard because of strong extremist and nationalist sentiments that have recently arisen, in no small measure due to America's interventionist role in that area.

It would be most unfortunate if moderate voices in this country also began to feel chilled by the extremist voices of the most fundamentalist sects of Christianity allied with conservative political causes.

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Washington, D.C.: I found it interesting that there was no mention of Israel in your review of Arab reaction to the debate. Didn't the Arab businessmen note the complete lack of discussion about attempting to revive Israel-Palestinian talks?

Also, one hears that many Arabs believe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was motivated in large part as a means of securing Israel's border and removing a leader hostile to that country. Was there any discussion of that topic?

Orville Schell: Israel and Palestine are, of course, the mother of all problems in the Middle East. My conversations with these Arabs in Berlin was too superficial to cover all issues. But, of course, Palestine's relation to Israel lurks behind every other one. It is an issue so complicated and so intractable that many people don't have any idea of how to approach it. All one can say is that the process of negotiations alone seems to have a somewhat calming effect on the conflict in the past. But of late, of course, there has been no constructive conversation. This has had a very deleterious effect on the Arab state of mind in the sense that they can imagine any peaceful way to solve the problem at hand.

This was the great virtue of the Clinton administration. At least they kept everyone talking. Clinton was tireless in his efforts to try to resolve this very antagonistic contradiction. And while he failed, the process of talking at least gave the Middle East some modest hope that some sort of reconciliation was possible.

In the catalogue of failures of the Bush administration, one would have to rank the failure to continue some sort of meaningful discussions around the "roadmap" as high on the list.

While one can hardly expect the Arab/Israeli problem to be resolved easily, one might not unreasonably expect the U. S. to have been more actively involved in an ongoing effort. At the very least, this would have allowed people throughout the Middle East to have felt that the U. S. was, in fact, "leading."

Alas, the Bush administration tended to view the road to Jerusalem as leading through Baghdad, and thus waited for the invasion of Iraq to be consumated before turning to the Arab/Israeli conflict. But now it turns out -- irony of ironies -- that the road to Baghdad may well lead through Jerusalem.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: Thank you for being here.

Much has been made of the connections between the Saudi royal family and the Bush administration. What is the difference to the Saudis whether Bush or Kerry is elected, and who do you think they hope to deal with in the next four years?

Orville Schell: The question of the Saudi family is an extremely complicated one. In Berlin, I sat next to a member of the royal Saudi family at dinner one night and was amazed to hear the infinite complexities through which he, as a relatively enlightened man, had to work in order to have a reasonable family life. For instance, he said that in Saudi schools, there were something like 18 courses of religious study that were required and that any student who wished to study outside Saudi Arabia had to get permission of the royal family. In his case, he had one or more of his children at school in Kuwait because he felt that no enlightened family could allow their children to be educated under the Saudi system. But this created an absolute nightmare of logistics in keeping the family together.

I asked him what the prospects for reform were in Saudi Arabia, particularly in relation to education. He just sighed and with a certain fatalism in his voice, said that because religious conservatism was so deep, it would be a long, slow process.

So what does this say about the prospects of the Saudi family to reform? I'm not sure. But my impression from the Arabs with whom I spoke was that many in the Saudi family would like to see reform move more rapidly but felt constrained by the fundamentalist religious sentiment which was everywhere around them.

The irony was, of course, that the royal family had also depended upon and propitiated this fundamentalism as a convenient way to hold it at abeyance and thus maintain their own unchallenged grip on power.

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Norwood, Mass.: Have you traveled to other countries/regions this election year? And if so, what have you observed about political sentiment abroad.

Orville Schell: Yes, I have traveled abroad a good deal. In the last few months, I've made several trips to Europe where one feels the climate towards the United States utterly changed. Although Europeans have no united front in relation to U. S. foreign policy, there is a distinct feeling, particularly among educated Europeans, that America is having something of an episode of irrational behavior. But at the same time, most Europeans feel utterly impotent to counteract what they view as a very self-defeating and very dangerous new way to approach the world.

In China, a power of increasing significance for the U. S., there is less overt hostility because for the first time in several decades, the U. S. is so preoccupied elsewhere in the world, that it has been much less critical of China than in the past. This is particularly true in its posture towards Chinese human rights failures. The new common chord tying China together with the U. S. is, of course, anti-terrorism. This has given us a new common purpose which has helped to eclipse much of the other suspiciousness and penchant to criticize China that we have evinced in the past.

In this sense, we can say that Sino-U.S. relations are better. But, if, as President Bush tirelessly emphasizes, "liberty and freedom are on the march" one would have to say that with the exception of the marketization of China, liberty and freedom are in a state of suspended animation in the People's Republic.

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Monterey, Calif.: It seems that it should be clear to most of the world that Bush does not speak for at least half of us -- who are doing everything in our power to topple him.

Is that your impression?

Orville Schell: I think that non-Americans do understand that the U. S. is not monolithic in its support of Bush administration policies. However, America is so powerful, and it casts such a shadow across the rest of the world that it is hard for the people of many foreign countries to actually take heart from the fact that there is, indeed, a very vibrant opposition in this country.

I think that many foreigners of my acquaintance are willing to grant us the indiscretion of President Bush having been "elected" once in a process where the popular vote was not even in his favor. But should we go and do it a second time, it is hard to imagine how we could maintain the fiction that he does not, in fact, represent the majority view of this country.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Mr. Schell,

I am greatly concern that this right wing conservertive "christians" group will get out of hand and we will return to our history of civil wars, but this time it'll be more on the religious perspective.

Thanks

Orville Schell: I share your implicit view that American democracy is currently at something of a tipping point. I say this because it seems increasingly clear that the Bush administration does not have a very well evolved view of the need for a press that can play an active watchdog function.

As you know, when the Founding Fathers set up this country, they built into its governance the notion of checks and balances within the government. But besides the checks and balances that were constitutionally mandated between the legislative, administrative, and judicial branches, they also called for the press to perform an extragovernmental watchdog function. It is this role that the Bush administration seems least eager to accept. Indeed, in my view, there is an increasing tendency to see the media as just another lobby group, albeit, one without any money to grease the skids of influence peddling.

If this is true, what it suggests is that the administration sees no constructive role for a skeptical, critical, and independent press and would just as soon be done with it.

I would have to say that this would be a fundamental change in the way this country has conducted itself since the Founding Fathers established the United States as the first republic of any significance since Athens and Rome.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Hi Mr. Schell,
I wonder if you could explain why it is so hard to get at least some "friendly" Arab/Islamic countries to send troops to help in stabilizing Iraq? I think these countries are very dysfunctional in the most basic ways, isolated and backward socially and economically, like Japan or China in the past

Thanks.

Orville Schell: I agree that it is very difficult to get other Arab countries to buy into a joint peacekeeping operation anywhere in the Middle East. But the time to have really tried to affect such a collaboration would have been before the invasion of Iraq. At that point, it might have been possible to have gotten together a joint police force of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Morroccan troops to have come in as soon as Baghdad fell to help maintain law and order. Alas, the U. S. was so hell-bent for leather in the run-up to the war that this seemed like an unnecessary precaution.

Now that the U. S. has gone it alone not only are the Europeans loathe to become involved, but Arab nations are all the more reluctant to have any active association with the American effort. And thus, while it would make sense to bring in Arab peacekeepers, or even soldiers, there is very little likelihood that this can be accomplished.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Directly after the U.S. election, what areas of the world do you think we should we be paying most attention to turning our gaze -- whether the winner is Kerry or Bush.

Orville Schell: One never wants to take one's eye off of China for very long. It is too large, too unresolved, and too dynamic a country for the U. S. to relegate to secondary status on our list of critical areas.

I would also hope that we would remember that the largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, which is also the fifth most populous country in the world. In the past, we have learned at our peril that inattention to such places during one moment of history can come back to haunt us in another.

And then, of course there is Africa. The problem with being so overwhelmingly involved in a discretionary war such as that in Iraq is that none of these other countries or areas can receive proper attention, much less aid and assistance. The cost of this inattention will only become evident as a sort of deferred maintenance in the years to come. And I believe we will look back on this period as one in which American leadership failed the world because we were so preoccupied with a problem that need not have consumed us so completely.

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Kensington, Md.: During the first presidential debate, John Kerry pointed out something that our vaunted "free" media has largely failed to. That is, that the bases we are setting up in Iraq have a very permanent look and feel to them. I think it's an underappreciated point that this sends a message to the Arab world that we are there to meddle, not just overthrow Saddam (because of a supposed threat that he posed). It also makes it look like we are there to make sure we control our access to the oil. Would you agree with these (perhaps facile) observations of the impact of the bases on Arab attitudes toward us?

Orville Schell: The question of bases in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is a real sleeper. We recall how contraversial our bases in Saudi Arabia became and how we were ultimately forced to close them down because they proved to be so inciteful to Muslim fundamentalists. One could well imagine that the bases now being established in Iraq will prove to be equally as inciteful in the years to come.

The U. S. has had a way of extending itself around the world without ever having a real national discussion about the need to do so. In the last century, America built a network of bases in Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Phillipines, Vietnam, and Thailand that formed a military imperium across the breadth of Asia. One fears that if this sort of network of military power becomes duplicated in the Middle East, it may serve as a series of provocations to exactly the sort of fundamentalist extremism which we are seeking to moderate.

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New York, N.Y.: Do you think that the individuals that you spoke with were motivated more by individual gains (self-interest, ability to do business with the U.S.) or a broader sense of political concerns. Or can you separate the two.

Orville Schell: One must be very careful not to draw general conclusions from a few conversations, especially conversations with a very elite and wealthy group of Arabs. And I hasten to add that I am hardly a specialist on this region. However, I did find it interesting that most of the Arabs with whom I spoke in Berlin had once been not only firm supporters of the U. S. but also very friendly with the Bush eschutecheon, largely because of the '91 Gulf War. But now, their disaffection seemed extreme. This to me seemed like a telling change.

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Martinsville, Ind.: If you were to do this story again, would you do it differently? Who would you approach in terms of gauging middle east opinion?

Orville Schell: Mine was hardly a scientific sampling of Middle Eastern views. But I did think it was an interesting look at one cross-section, namely wealthy Arabs with a certain cosmopolitan perspective. But if I wanted to ascertain a somewhat wider and more reliable view, I think I would do a survey of Arab liberals whose agenda was to bring about reform in the countries of the Middle East. There is one man at the University of Maryland, Shilbey Telhami, who has been undertaking such surveys in the region and his work is very interesting.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Schell:

May I remind you that the administration worked tirelessly PRIOR to the war to try and get others involved. (Remember Turkey?)

And, you know that there are 30+ countries in Iraq now. So, no, we have not gone it alone.

Your obvious bias is seeping through.

Orville Schell: Let's be honest. One's bias always leaks through when one expresses opinions. Indeed, it is our obligation to have a point of view when writing a column.

As to your own view that the Bush administration did try to effect an alliance, I would only say that the whole world knew that Bush was going to invade Iraq no matter what. This had a very chilling effect on his ability to form a true collaboration.

I would also counsel you to look back at how his father fashioned the alliance behind Desert Storm in 1991. This was not easily done, but by the time he finished, he had brought in even the French and the Saudis.

This is only to say that "united fronts" are never easy to bring about. And it is the test of a true leader to be able to do so under trying circumstances. In my view, Bush II failed this test and the results are plain for all to see.

Part of Bush II's problem is that he does not recognize that most problems in our modern world can only be solved through global cooperation...that the era of unilateral action, even by a power so mighty as the United States, is over. In this sense, America must recognize that it may be prima inter pares or the first among equals in the world, but it still must imagine itself as being among equals. If it does not have the acumen to lead the world, the world will be a much sorrier place for this failure.

It is toward this end that we have consecrated PBS FRONTLINE/World ( www.pbs.org/frontlineworld ), out of which this conversation grows. For if there is one area that the American media shortchanges, it is the global view...the inevitable fact that all people on the earth today are interrelated and that few problems can be solved without international cooperation and collaboration.

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