December 31, 2004
Grimacing our way
From the Commentary section
The U.S. government spends about $10 billion a year on travel. Some 70,000 employees are on the road on any given day -- at home and abroad. But all this exposure does not appear to have enhanced our understanding of why so many foreigners judge America harshly.
Year-end talk shows indicate Iraq may be the least of it. The Bush administration's initial allocation of $35 million for what now looks like humanity's greatest ever natural disaster vs. the $200 billion budgeted for two wars in three years, and $430 billion on defense in a single year, scuttles attempts to improve the U.S. image.
Many young Arabs who want to see for themselves by studying in the United States are discouraged from doing so by post-September 11, 2001, visa restrictions. Those who overcome visa hurdles often get their first impression of America from immigration officers who treat them as wannabe terrorists.
One of the Gulf's most prominent businessmen, who owns a home in the Washington area, declines to travel to the United States where his friends are legion "as long as I'm going to be treated like a criminal." There are many other long-time Arab friends of the United States who feel the same way.
Foreign media -- not only Arab media -- have opted for Michael Moore's version of the Bush administration. His half-true-half-lies version of the Bush administration is now the American gospel for most of the world.
Lending credence to this poisonous omnium-gatherum of American miscellany these days is "Desperate Housewives," the soap quintet of sex-crazed women who pop pills and cuckold husbands with reckless abandon as they climax their way to the top of the Nielsen ratings. Foreign commentators tend to see this as the new face of America.
The way one of the five desperados drops her towel in the locker room to get a football player to switch from one game to another on Monday Night Football is seen as routine fare for TV commercials. The $10 billion porn industry and its television channels, next to which Howard Stern is a model of probity, invariably crop up in think pieces about the American condition.
Tom Wolfe's latest bestseller -- "I am Charlotte Simmons" -- is now thrown into the degenerate mix, along with same-sex "marriages." This universally acclaimed author documents life on an Ivy League campus where first-year women are "frostitutes," or fresh meat, and where everyone else uses groin more than brain. Charlotte Simmons has already persuaded a growing number of Arab parents a European education might be the better part of valor in giving Sodom and Gomorrah a wide berth.
Sex, violence and drugs are portrayed abroad as hallmarks of American culture. Footage of the NBA brawl in Detroit is blended with scandals about what was once one of America's greatest assets -- sports superstars. They bested their foreign competitors, foreign readers are now told, with illegal steroid booster shots.
Expanded election coverage in the Insider
U.S. media see these unsavory morsels of Americana as separate stories that stand on their own merit or demerit; foreign media paint them as part of a seamy mosaic.
Wall Street scandals are juxtaposed with year-end Wall Street bonuses -- $15.9 billion in 2004 -- that keep Ferrari and Aston Martin showrooms busy despite the $250,000 price tags. Investment bankers averaged a 25 percent increase in their Christmas stocking.
The dollar may be in a free fall, but boat owners now have to sail in $20 million 300-footers with a crew of 10 to make heads turn. America's airlines teeter on the edge of bankruptcy while private aviation is booming; G5s -- with a sticker price of $50 million -- are sold as fast as they can be produced.
The growing abyss between rich and poor in America is another favorite theme of foreign media.
Donald Trump didn't fire himself in the hit reality television show, "The Apprentice," even though he recently declared bankruptcy in 28 casino entities owing some 1,000 creditors a mere $1.3 billion. "Not a failure," said the Donald, "but a success." Fannie Mae, the mortgage behemoth, got rapped on the knuckles for concealing $9 billion in losses over four years, escamotage that provided executives with larger bonuses.
Meanwhile, Manhattan's toniest co-ops and condos hit a record of $1,500 per square foot.
The sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, made more front pages abroad than at home with his warning of financial chaos. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, now holds $20 billion in foreign currencies -- the euro, sterling, Swiss francs and five other currencies. Mr. Buffett's biggest fear is the $10 trillion of the U.S. economy owned by foreigners.
Mr. Buffett told Forbes magazine, "if lots of foreigners continue to exit the dollar, and leave the market, we'll have chaos as they won't get through the door."
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.