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Democracy They Can't Imagine

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009; Page A17

You've probably heard stories of swooning foreign reporters, breathless international coverage, fawning headlines in many languages -- and I can confirm that, yes, it's all true. Having found myself at a London newspaper stand the day after the inauguration, I can attest to what many British and European newspapers chose to run on their front pages that morning: Full-page photographs of President Obama, most taken so as to show the crowd of more than 1 million people below him, all under triumphant headlines written in large letters.

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The rejoicing was not entirely unanimous, of course, not least because the frothy media coverage itself provoked some backlash. One British friend told me that while he'd enjoyed watching the inauguration, "this salvationist acclaim for a political redeemer worries me, since it shows the depth of the almost universal despair." Similar rumblings were heard elsewhere.

Yet there was another, more negative category of foreign response to Obama's inauguration that is worth noting, not so much because of what it tells us about our new president but because of what it reveals about those making the comments. A number of international observers eschewed the general adulation and concluded, simply, that the entire event -- the election, the inauguration -- was a hoax.

Look, for a typical example, at Pravda.ru, the Russian Web site that succeeded the organ of the Soviet Communist Party. Writing in the spirit of times past, one of its authors informed readers last week that Obama's presidency was a sham. After all, he "became the president because one needed a scapegoat during hard times of the crisis," and he will not last: "If Obama does not manage to extricate the nation from the crisis in two or three years, the Republicans will unveil their real candidate, and Obama's presidency will finish earlier than expected." The U.S. president, in other words, is merely a placeholder -- a description that makes him sound remarkably similar to the president of Russia.

But Pravda.ru was not the only site of such criticism. One Chinese academic wrote that many of his compatriots were confident that the "impossible" election of Obama would be disrupted by "something dramatic, similar to John F. Kennedy's assassination." After the inauguration, one high-ranking official shifted the line somewhat and denounced the process, calling on China to build defenses against the "erroneous" ideas of Western democracy (Chinese television was wary enough of these erroneous ideas to censor Obama's inaugural address, even as it was being broadcast live).

Al-Qaeda has been looking to discredit President Obama, too, mostly with nasty insults (he's a "hypocrite," a "killer," even a "house Negro") but also describing him as a front man for the secret Zionist conspiracy. "This is Obama," said Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group's No. 2, "whom the American machine of lies tried to portray as the rescuer who will change the policy of America."

I have, of course, chosen these quotations selectively: There were plenty of Chinese and Russian bloggers and journalists who wrote enthusiastically about the inauguration, or who at least didn't think it was a giant coverup. As The Post has pointed out, the very harshness of al-Qaeda's language may even reflect the fact that Obama's presidency is being welcomed warmly in much of the Islamic world.

Yet there will always be some who believe his election must have been manipulated, simply because, in their countries, elections are always manipulated. The very idea that a relatively young, relatively unknown member of an ethnic minority could become president of the United States simply makes no sense in China, where national leaders are elderly men who have spent decades in the service of the Communist Party. Nor is it logical in Russia, where the outcome of elections is always known well in advance and where the transfer of power always takes place under the shadow of conspiracy. Nor, of course, could it ever seem plausible to the jihadist fringe, whose members are defined by the fact that they believe "change" is something you achieve with mass terror.

Nor does the election make sense even to some Americans (type "Obama" and "hoax" into your search engine of choice and see what I mean). Still, most of us have gotten used to the idea that electoral outcomes cannot always be determined in advance by the political establishment. We've also elected, in recent memory, improbable presidents from Arkansas and Georgia; have survived a presidential resignation and an impeachment; have become accustomed to (even blase about) a black man and a black woman running our foreign policy. One's perception of the present is shaped by one's experience in the past, and our experience is that democracy, at least when it works, is messy and unpredictable -- which is precisely why it seems so implausible to others.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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