- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

LONDON — Drip by drip by drip this summer, traditional British goodwill toward the United States appears to be leaking into the sands, as irritation with U.S. policies and attitudes grows increasingly personal.

From the opinion pages of conservative newspapers to the choices of studies at universities, America seems to have lost its appeal, even though as many British tourists are visiting the United States as ever — encouraged in part by a highly favorable exchange rate.

Despite Prime Minister Tony Blair’s staunch support, many here believe that U.S. policy toward Iraq initiated the change in attitudes. However, concern about America appears to have deepened to the point that open admiration for the United States no longer is fashionable.

On university campuses, according to news reports last week, five of 50 American studies programs already have closed for lack of students, and most of the others have declining enrollment. Only four years ago, such courses were as popular as psychology or media studies.

“I’m convinced that it’s partly to do with 9/11 and the war in Iraq,” said Professor Ian Bell, head of the American studies department at Keele University. One of the oldest and biggest of its kind in Britain, the department recently was forced to cut its teaching staff by half.

“Undergraduates don’t want to be tainted with the Bush regime,” Mr. Bell told the Financial Times newspaper. “They may still want to follow American subjects but don’t want to be classified as Americanists.”

For some time, the British tabloids have played up reports of heavy-handed American law enforcement officials fingerprinting, handcuffing and detaining British visitors whose passports or visas are judged not to be in order when they enter the United States. The reports usually have been accompanied by expressions of outrage that Britons, hailing from America’s closest ally, should not treated this way.

Now the heavyweight broadsheets have weighed in.

A few days ago, the staunchly pro-American London Daily Telegraph gave its prominent lead opinion piece to Stephen Robinson, former foreign and U.S. editor of the conservative paper. Mr. Robinson fulminated against his treatment in getting a work visa to cover the Republican Party convention in New York this week.

Under the headline “Why is the U.S. doing its best to alienate all of its allies?”, Mr. Robinson wrote of a misleading embassy telephone information line, of being forced to wait in line outside the extensively cordoned-off embassy just after dawn and of watching a “preposterous show of force” from a young U.S. Marine dressed “as though he was just back from patrol in Najaf.”

“Normally, I am absurdly, unquestioningly pro-American,” he wrote. “I lived in Washington for seven happy years. I have many American friends and a 10-year-old American goddaughter who is as delightful as she is precociously intelligent.

“When my Lefty friends refer to George W. Bush as a grinning monkey, I rebuke them and tell them to show more respect to the leader of the free world. I take the ‘War on Terror’ seriously, even if I think the term is daft. …

“Yet even I find I am enraged by the current attitude of America in its disproportionate approach to defending the homeland. Too many friends and colleagues report horror stories of being held in rooms, separated from their children for trivial, easily explicable visa violations.”

Even harsher words came from a long-time expatriate British journalist living in the United States, in an equally prominent comment in the London Times newspaper.

Under the large headline, “America deserves a gold [medal] for narcissistic isolation,” Gerard Baker argued that NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games in Athens was so grotesquely skewed to the home audience that it was “reinforcing all those characteristics that the rest of the world finds so distasteful in Americans.”

He added, “Some things test the patience of even the greatest of Americophiles, and the quadrennial festival of self-congratulatory, narcissistic pap that is U.S. Olympics coverage is probably the biggest.”

Opinion polls taken over the past year show that the British still regard Americans, both as a people and individually, with overwhelming favor, but fewer than 20 percent say they admire U.S. society and want to emulate it.

Though there always has been a receptive audience for anti-American attitudes among British intellectuals and academicians, a “Eurobarometer” poll earlier this year found that popular attitudes in Britain are turning against the United States as well.

The poll found that in 15 European Union countries, a slight majority of the respondents — 53 percent — saw the United States as a threat to world peace, tied with North Korea and trailing only Israel. The figure for Britain was 55 percent.

The continuing support in the United States for President Bush, particularly in the aftermath of September 11, has led many here to argue that the heartland of American society has moved away from Britain and Europe’s own largely secular and world-experienced society.

No recent opinion polls have asked Britons for whom they would vote if they could in the presidential election, but all the available media analysis and anecdotal evidence suggest they would be overwhelmingly for Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry — or at least against Mr. Bush.

At the U.S. Embassy in London, Press Attache Lee McLenny noted that on the same day that the Telegraph’s Mr. Robinson struggled to get his visa, 10,000 Britons went to America “with no problems that I know of.”

“Letters of complaint are no higher now than they have been,” the attache said.

Work visas for journalists, he said, have been required since the 1950s, but the requirement has been enforced rigorously only as a result of the September 11 attacks.

“The relationship between our two countries is so broad and so complicated that you just can’t reach easy, generalized conclusions,” he said.

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