Thursday, May 27, 2004

Despite opposing the U.S.-led war in Iraq, many leaders in Arab and Muslim countries would prefer to see President Bush rather than Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry in the White House for the next four years.

Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, in an interview with the Associated Press earlier this month, defied both diplomatic etiquette and conventional wisdom when he all but endorsed Mr. Bush.

“We are lucky with the Republicans that the president, his secretary of state, the vice president and the secretary of defense all have a personal relationship with Pakistan,” Mr. Jamali said.

Although noting that it is up to American voters to decide, he said the Bush administration “is a much better bet as far as Pakistan-American relations are concerned.”

A top diplomat for a major Muslim country said he found that many leaders of Islamic countries acknowledge behind closed doors that they prefer Mr. Bush.

“Ironically, when you talk privately with a lot of these leaders, you find many of them support President Bush, even after all that has happened,” said the diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Israel’s University of Haifa and a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, noted that Mr. Kerry on the campaign trail touts his pro-Israel Senate record, supports sanctions against Syria and vows to maintain and even expand the U.S. deployment in Iraq.

“I don’t think many in the Arab world can even see a clear difference with President Bush on their big issues,” said Mr. Baram.

“By and large, Arab rulers and opinion leaders just see America as America.”

In the case of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Kerry has criticized the administration for being too close to the oil-rich kingdom.

“America cannot afford to hold its nose and play nice with a country whose actions often speak louder than its words when it comes to fighting terrorism,” Mr. Kerry wrote in an opinion piece in the Jewish newspaper the Forward.

Analysts say Mr. Kerry faces the same foreign policy doubts any challenger does when confronting a well-known incumbent. Many of the same governments who now praise the Clinton administration’s foreign policy were skeptical of President Clinton during his first years in office.

Muhammad Sid-Ahmed, writing in the pro-government Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo, said Mr. Kerry’s nomination disappointed many because he was not enough of a break from the administration on many foreign policy issues.

“He is the Democratic candidate whose views are closest to those of Bush,” Mr. Sid-Ahmed wrote. “That is particularly true when it comes to Kerry’s views on the Middle East.”

The Massachusetts Democrat found himself on the defensive earlier this year when he declined to identify the unnamed “foreign leaders” who he said had told him that Mr. Bush must be defeated in November.

On a Seattle campaign swing this week, Mr. Kerry said he had a “level of trust” with Middle East leaders that would allow him to rebuild U.S. alliances in the region.

But the Kerry campaign in January scrambled to repudiate the one unequivocal endorsement from a major Muslim political figure: former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr. Mahathir, who critics say has a long record of anti-Western and anti-Semitic comments, told reporters in February, “I think Kerry would be much more willing to listen to the voices of the people and of the rest of the world.”

Even Bush administration officials acknowledge that America’s image in the Middle East and the larger Islamic world has suffered with the Iraq war and its troubled aftermath.

In countries such as Jordan and Pakistan, more than 90 percent of those polled say they have a negative view of Mr. Bush.

Shibley Telhami, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said hostility to Mr. Bush’s policies on Iraq and the war on terrorism have left many allied governments in Europe and the Middle East unwilling to do anything between now and the November election to boost the president’s re-election bid.

“They’re going to do the minimum to prevent disaster” in Iraq, Mr. Telhami said, “but no one is going to do enough for this administration to say, ‘Ah, it worked. Let’s do it again.’”

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