On the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised that he would “reboot America’s image” around the world. Indeed, many Americans who voted for Obama believed that his global popularity would somehow reverse the tide of anti-Americanism that so vexed his predecessor. Echoing this sentiment of Obama as savior of America’s image abroad, presidential advisor David Axelrod recently asserted that “anti-Americanism isn’t cool anymore.”
In Europe, where anti-Americanism was elevated to the status of a religion during the presidency of George W. Bush, the “chattering classes” have, by and large, toned down their criticism of the United States since Obama was elected. In general, European media coverage of Obama has been quite favorable and the vehemence of the anti-American rhetoric has been notably more muted than in recent years. But now, five months into the age of Obama, the highly vaunted transatlantic honeymoon may be coming to an end. During the past several weeks, European media have started publishing stories that criticize Obama and once again cast the United States in a negative light. Could this be a harbinger of things to come?
What follows is a brief selection of European news stories that typify what seems to be a general trend toward a return to more negative reporting about America, its people, and its president.
In Britain, the left-leaning daily newspaper The Independent asks: “Has Obama been exposed as an innocent abroad?” It continues: “Barack Obama’s foreign policy honeymoon may be petering out as events around the globe, whether in Israel, Iran or North Korea, conspire to expose some inconvenient realities about his vaunted olive-branch approach to international relations. A nicer America does not a nicer world immediately make. It would help if the ‘Obama Effect’ could be demonstrated actually to exist, even just a little.”
In Germany, the news media have been especially angry over Obama’s failure to close the prison for terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The Financial Times Deutschland, in a commentary titled “World’s Hopes Dashed By George W. Obama,” writes: “This decision [to revive military trials for some Guantánamo Bay detainees] isn’t a belated insight, but the pathetic faltering of a man forced to confront a disastrous legacy. … No one who defends these institutions ought to criticize Islam’s Sharia courts.” The Munich-based center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung, in an editorial titled “Obama’s Great Mistake,” writes: “Obama’s people certainly imagined things differently. But reality has caught up with them. … Bush light, so to speak. … Obama is discrediting both himself and the United States.”
German newspapers have also been fiercely critical of Obama’s refusal to release more photos of alleged torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Berlin-based left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes: “With his decision to prevent the publication of the photos, Obama, who promised transparency … is practicing opacity. … That the president is abdicating leadership on this question is a tragedy.” In another commentary, Die Tageszeitung writes: “Whenever [Obama] takes a step forward, he stumbles backwards as well. That will likely be enough to disappoint all those Europeans who had expectations that Obama would be an almost messiah-like healer. It was expected that he would demolish all of the ugly monuments from the Bush era and then, together with Al Gore, plant a Garden of Eden over the top, through which he would drive fuel-efficient compacts from Chrysler.”
The Financial Times Deutschland writes: “Obama promised that, under his leadership, politics in the U.S. would be both more ethical and more transparent than ever before. The dark chapters of the Bush era would be illuminated as quickly as possible. But since Obama assumed a position of responsibility, it has become increasingly obvious that he cannot live up to these promises.”
The Hamburg-based left-leaning Der Spiegel, which was one of the most hyperactive purveyors of anti-Americanism during the Bush presidency, has lately been back in full form. In recent weeks, the magazine has published a series of articles that are unusually critical of Obama. Some titles include: “From Mania to Distrust: Europe’s Obama Euphoria Wanes,” “Torturing for America,” “American Gays and Lesbians Feel Betrayed by Obama,” and “GM Insolvency Proves America’s Global Power is Waning.”
One of the favorite tactics used by Der Spiegel is to interview American left-wingers in order to “prove” that the United States is every bit as bad as the German media say it is. In an article about the Iranian election titled “Extraordinary Amount of Wishful Thinking by the U.S.,” Flynt Leverett, an American analyst, assured Der Spiegel that the voting irregularities in Iran “likely weren’t as bad as in Florida in 2000.” In another article titled “America’s Torture Legacy: Obama Isn’t Off to a Good Start on Human Rights,” Joan McCarter of the left-wing blog Daily Kos, told German readers that a “truth commission could have real value in illuminating for the American people what the Bush administration did in our names.”
Another Der Spiegel article is a quintessential example of the magazine’s signature anti-American style. Titled “American Recession Food: The Fat Crisis,” the article reports that millions of unemployed Americans are trying to save money by eating junk food at McDonald’s. “The recession is leading to unemployment, waves of bankruptcies and the decline of entire neighborhoods — and health and fitness problems for American citizens. Initial studies show that the crisis is impoverishing more and more people, which leads them to the most unhealthy and fatty foods. And this in an already obese and diabetic country.” The article fails to mention, of course, that Europe in general, and Germany in particular, is facing its own obesity epidemic.
In Britain, the media have been parroting the same theme of America as a terminal wasteland. The center-right Daily Telegraph reports that “dozens of U.S. cities may have entire neighborhoods bulldozed as part of drastic ‘shrink to survive’ proposals being considered by the Obama administration to tackle economic decline.” The left-wing Guardian warns that “far-right shootings raise fear of hate offensive in America.” The killing of a black security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is “the latest example of a surge in extremist violence, as the election of Barack Obama and the economic crisis breed resentment in a fanatical, racist minority,” the Guardian asserts.
In Switzerland, the St Gallen-based Nachrichten.ch asks whether America will go the way of General Motors. In a commentary, the paper writes: “The triumph of U.S. ideology after the Second World War was in no small measure due to the positive associations connected to America. ‘Brand USA’ was attractive and appealing. But this attraction — just like the status of Cadillac as a dream car — is long since gone. Instead there is a general unease toward the United States, a country regarded as aggressive, financially ailing, the birthplace of a global recession and partly autistic when it comes to understanding the sensitivities of other countries and their cultures.”
Underscoring the hypocrisy that underpins so much of the anti-Americanism in Europe, many newspapers have expressed resentment over Obama’s unwillingness to allow his European colleagues to bask in the limelight of joint photo opportunities. Commenting on Obama’s recent trip to Europe, the Brussels-based EU Observer ran a headline titled “Obama Keeps Leaders at Arm’s Length on Europe Trip.” It reported that Obama, much to the dismay of his French hosts, turned down a dinner invitation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on top of the Eiffel Tower.
Der Spiegel ran an article titled “Obama and Merkel: Trans-Atlantic Frenemies,” which reports that the White House denied a request by German Chancellor Angela Merkel for face time with Obama. The magazine laments that “Germany is increasingly being left out of the loop.” In an editorial, the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung writes: “The radiance of German-American relations today has its limits. In the G-8, as in NATO and in Afghanistan, but also in Obama’s itinerary, the waning importance of Germany is obvious.” In another article, Der Spiegel quotes Sarkozy as mocking Merkel: “She can’t even host the U.S. president in the capital city,” he bragged, while “I can meet him in Normandy and in Paris.”
In Italy, the Turin-based La Stampa grieves for the future of Europe. It argues that Europe’s political class is secretly resentful for “being abandoned by America in the face of the relentless advancement of European Islamization.”
Maybe the center-right Times of London says it best. In an article titled “Eventually, We Will All Hate Obama Too,” the paper predicts: “So Barack Obama, en fête around the world, will one day learn that there is no magical cure for the envy of others. What makes America the indispensable power (and even more indispensable in the era of the new China), is precisely what makes anti-Americanism inevitable.”