By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 5, 2008
LONDON, June 4 -- For much of the world, Sen. Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic primaries was a moment to admire the United States at a time when the nation's image abroad has been seriously damaged.
From hundreds of supporters crowded around televisions in rural Kenya, Obama's ancestral homeland, to jubilant Britons writing "WE DID IT!" on the Brits for Barack discussion board on Facebook, people celebrated what they called an important racial and generational milestone for the United States.
"This is close to a miracle. I was certain that some things will not happen in my lifetime," said Sunila Patel, 62, a widow encountered on the streets of New Delhi. "A black president of the U.S. will mean that there will be more American tolerance for people around the world who are different."
The primary race generated unprecedented interest outside the United States, much of it a reflection of a desire for change from the policies of President Bush, who surveys show is deeply unpopular around the globe. At the same time, many people abroad seemed impressed -- sometimes even shocked -- by the wide-open nature of U.S. democracy, and the history-making race between a woman and a black man.
"The primaries showed that the U.S. is actually the nation we had believed it to be, a place that is open-minded enough to have a woman or an African American as its president," said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo political analyst.
While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has admirers, especially from her days as first lady, interviews on four continents suggested that Obama is the candidate who has most captured the world's imagination.
"Obama is the exciting image of what we always hoped America was," said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a British foreign policy institute. "We have immensely enjoyed the ride and can't wait for the next phase."
The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, who has extensive overseas experience, is known and respected in much of the world. Interviews suggested that McCain is more popular than Obama in countries such as Israel, where McCain is particularly admired for his hard line against Iran.
"Although no one will admit it, Israeli leaders are worried about Obama," said Eytan Gilboa, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. "The feeling is that this is the time to be tough in foreign policy toward the Middle East, and he's going to be soft."
In China, leaders are widely believed to be wary that a Democratic administration might put up barriers to Chinese exports to the United States.
But elsewhere, people were praising Obama, 46, whose emphasis on using the Internet helped make him better known in more nations than perhaps any U.S. primary candidate in history.
In Kenya, Obama's victory was greeted with unvarnished glee. In Kisumu, close to the home of Obama's late father, hundreds crowded around televisions Wednesday morning to watch Obama's victory speech, chanting "Obama tosha!" -- "Obama is enough!"
"I can't express the joy in me," declared Sarah Obama, the senator's grandmother, at her home. "I'm only praying for more success in the coming days."
Sam Onyango, a water vendor in Kisumu, said that "Obama's victory means I might one day get to America and share the dreams I have always heard about. He will open doors for us there in the spirit of African brotherhood."
Obama also has strong support in Europe, the heartland of anti-Bush sentiment. "Germany is Obama country," said Karsten Voight, the German government's coordinator for German-North American cooperation. "He seems to strike a chord with average Germans," who see him as a transformational figure like John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr.
His father's journey to America as an immigrant resonates with many foreigners who hope to make the same trip. Many people interviewed said that although the candidate's living in Indonesia for several years as a child doesn't qualify as foreign policy credentials, it may give him a more instinctive feel for the plight of the developing world.
"He's African, he's an immigrant family; he has a different style. It's just the way he looks -- he seems kind," said Nagy Kayed, 30, a student at the American University in Cairo.
For many, Obama's skin color is deeply symbolic. As the son of an African and a white woman from Kansas, Obama has the brownish "everyman" skin color shared by hundreds of millions of people. "He looks like Egyptians. You can walk in the streets and find people who really look like him," said Manar el-Shorbagi, a specialist in U.S. political affairs at the Cairo university.
In many nations, Obama's youth and color also represent a welcome generational and stylistic change for America. "It could help to reduce anti-U.S. sentiment and even turn it around," said Kim Sung-ho, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
In terms of foreign policy, Obama's stated willingness to meet and talk with the leaders of Iran, Syria and other nations largely shunned by Bush has been praised and criticized overseas.
In Israel, Gilboa said, Obama's openness to the meetings has contributed to a sense that his Middle East policies are too soft. When a leader of Hamas, the Palestinian organization that the United States and Israel call a terrorist group, expressed a preference for Obama earlier this year, many Israelis were turned off even more.
Many people in Israel said they preferred Clinton, who is well regarded because of her support for the Jewish state in the Senate and her husband's pro-Israel stance during his presidency.
Obama's candidacy has generated suspicion among Palestinians as well. Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, said that even if Obama appears to be evenhanded in his approach to the Middle East, he would never take on the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. "The minute that Obama takes office, if he takes office, all his aides in the White House will start working on his reelection," Jarbawi said. "Do you think Obama would risk his reelection because of us?"
In Iraq, views on Obama's victory were mixed. Salah al-Obaidi, chief spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite Muslim cleric who opposes the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, said the Sadr movement favors having a Democrat in the White House on grounds that McCain would largely continue Bush's policies.
But in Samarra, a Sunni stronghold north of Baghdad, Omar Shakir, 58, a political analyst, said he hoped McCain would win the election and combat the influence of Shiite-dominated Iran.
In Iran, government officials have taken no official position on the race. But "the majority of Iranians feel that the Democrats support what they want: a major and drastic change in relations with the U.S. So for them the coming of Obama would be a good omen," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, professor of U.S.-Iranian relations at Allameh Tabatabai University.
In Latin America, Obama's recent declaration that he would meet with Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Raúl Castro of Cuba has been widely welcomed as a break from Bush policy. Obama, though, has declared that he is not a Chávez admirer. He recently voiced strong support for Colombia in its fight against its main rebel group, which Colombian officials say receives sanctuary from Chávez.
Although Colombian officials worry that Obama will not support a free trade agreement with their country, Obama strikes a chord with ordinary Colombians because of deep resentments toward the Bush administration's policies, including the Iraq war. "My number one wish is that Bush be gone," said Salud Hernández, a popular radio pundit in Bogota. An Obama presidency, she said, would be "a positive turn because of what Bush represented to the world."
Not everyone has been riveted by the U.S. election.
Interviews suggested that the Chinese public, absorbed by the recent earthquake in Sichuan province and preparations for the Beijing Olympics in August, paid little attention. And Russians have proved supremely indifferent; one poll earlier this year found that only 5 percent said they were closely watching the race. Of 40 people approached Wednesday on the streets of Moscow, only five had any opinion on the race or knew who was running.
Still, some Russians hope that a new American president will improve strained relations between Washington and Moscow. "Barack Obama looks like the candidate that can be expected to take the greatest strides towards Russia," Konstantin Kosachev, a member of parliament, wrote in the newspaper Kommersant. "Unlike McCain he's not infected with any Cold War phobias."
Contributing to this report were correspondents Ellen Knickmeyer in Cairo; Blaine Harden in Tokyo; Stephanie McCrummen in El Fashir, Sudan; Griff Witte in Jerusalem; Amit R. Paley in Baghdad; Peter Finn in Moscow; Monte Reel in Buenos Aires; Candace Rondeaux in Islamabad, Pakistan; Juan Forero in Bogota; Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi; Edward Cody in Beijing; and Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran; and special correspondents Karla Adam in London, Shannon Smiley in Berlin, Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo, Stella Kim in Seoul, Allan Akombo in Kisumu, and Samuel Sockol and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem.