Around the world, Obama triumph lifts battered U.S. image

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2008 

BEIJING — From the cafes of Beirut to the villages of Kenya, much of the world viewed Barack Obama’s electoral triumph as a transformative event that could repair the battered reputation of the United States, lift the aspirations of minorities everywhere and renew the chances for diplomacy rather than war.

Huge numbers of foreigners and U.S. citizens abroad jammed venues for live broadcasts of vote counting. In Rio de Janeiro, Ryan Steers, a 23-year-old Brazilian documentary filmmaker, said that Obama could improve the United States’ image abroad.

“Obama is someone the world can trust,” Steers said. “That is the most important thing for American right now: regaining its trust in the world community.”

Many could barely believe the news. In London’s Trafalgar Square, a reporter told Hannah Capella, a 20-year-old student, of the election result. "That's amazing," said Capella, an Englishwoman. "I really didn't think it could happen. . . . I always thought he was too good to be true," she said of Obama. "We'll see.”

In every corner of the globe, foreign citizens are expecting a more cooperative approach to the world’s problems under an Obama administration than they experienced from President Bush, McClatchy correspondents reported.

In the Middle East, many Israelis remained wary of Obama, but many Arabs viewed his victory as pointing the way out of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In Latin America, many took heart in the meteoric rise of an African-American politician.

Pakistanis worried that Obama’s ascent will lead to more U.S. bombings of Pakistan territory, and other Asians wondered how Obama could calm the global financial turmoil. Almost everywhere, however, people welcomed the fresh face of U.S. leadership.

In Kenya, the birthplace of Obama’s late father, President Mwai Kibaki declared Thursday a national holiday.

With U.S.-led wars still under way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a financial meltdown shaking the pillars of the world economy, many foreigners associated the Bush presidency with global uncertainty linked to a never-ending war on terrorism, and they're happy to see it draw to a close.

"I'm just really, really happy,” said Shane Inwood, an English teacher who was watching U.S. election returns in an Irish pub in Osaka, Japan. “It is more to do with ‘Goodbye, Bush’ than ‘Hello, Obama.’ ”

Some said Obama’s victory was a call to re-examine racial issues in their own countries.

“The Maoris and the Pacific Islanders are going to take inspiration from him,” said Calum McKenzie, 34, speaking from the Mustang Saloon & Grill in Auckland, New Zealand. A U.S. executive based in Bangkok, Thailand, said Obama’s triumph heartened foreigners who'd been distressed by Washington’s go-it-alone approach after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“They are just so unhappy with the current administration,” said Chris Kimble, who headed a campaign drive for John McCain among U.S. citizens living there. “The U.S. is not looked on as it used to be. People are expecting that to change to a little more ‘open to discussion’ type of approach rather than a unilateral style.” In resurgent Russia, some people tut-tutted the pending change of U.S. leadership.

“Both Obama and McCain criticize Russia, blame it for international conflicts. Their hostility offends me, and I don’t expect any improvement in our relations,” said Andrey Grigoriev, a 61-year-old entrepreneur.

There was little celebration in Pakistan, despite Obama’s Muslim family connection and the multi-billion-dollar aid package that running mate Joe Biden has proposed.

The new administration "will be the same for Muslims. America arrives everywhere and bombs Muslims,” said Gul Jan, 40, who runs a kiosk in Islamabad’s Aabpara market. “Look at the violence in Pakistan; it is all America’s fault, and the (Pakistan) army is following America’s orders.”

Obama’s campaign statement that he'd order unilateral military action in Pakistan if intelligence pointed to the presence of Osama bin Laden there has made Pakistanis wary of him, fearing that their country may become a U.S. military target. Some were more optimistic, however.

"At least Bush has been defeated. No one could be as bad as that," said fruit seller Akhwas Abassi, 34.

The campaign drew intense interest in the Middle East, where residents gathered before dawn in cafes, bars and shops to watch the historic election unfold.

Even if they disagreed with his politics, Israelis and Palestinians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Arabs and Jews all saw Obama’s victory as a transforming event for the United States and the world. There was broad belief that Americans were embracing a new strategy for the region, one that relies on diplomacy. Many saw that as a change for the better.

In a Beirut restaurant, Miriam, a 28-year-old from southern Lebanon, said that her two brothers, both members of the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, saw Obama as an American leader who was willing to take diplomatic risks to avoid military confrontations.

"They think Obama will not damage the Middle East the way Bush did, and they were afraid if McCain made it, the whole region would be in danger,” she said.

Perhaps the most serious reservations about Obama in the region are in Israel, where some worry that his pledge to engage America’s adversaries is naive.

Those concerns were reflected in a poll in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that found that Israelis favored McCain over Obama, 46 percent to 34 percent.

"Obama as president, it seems that our hands would be tied and we would be pressed to do things that we don't want to do," said Yona Mishane, a Jerusalem plumber.

Many Baghdad shop owners in the busy Bab al Sharji marketplace — which is encased in towering concrete walls to protect shoppers from car bombs — tuned in to the election news. In one shop, Jassim al Saadi listened to television newscasters analyzing Obama’s win. "We will be liberated as Iraqis. We will get rid of this concrete; we will be capable of going to our jobs at normal times and not in darkness," Saadi said. “I believe Obama is a man of politics, not a man that desires wars, not like McCain or George Bush, the father and son."

A cheer went up among Obama supporters at a gathering of Americans and Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro every time CNN called another state for the Democrat.

“I adore the United States. It’s a spectacular country,” said Italo Mazzoni, the president of the Rio-based Brazilian-United States Institute. “But the United States’ reputation has been sullied because of President Bush. Obama is capable of improving that image.”

In London, crowds of American expatriates and locals watched election results all night.

"The scenes I saw on the telly last night from America were extraordinary," said Simon Haymer, 45, who's the managing director of an advertising agency. Haymer, who follows U.S. politics closely, said "the best man won." He added, "But the best thing is Bush won't be there."

Passengers flying across the Atlantic were anxious to hear the news. When a British Airways flight from Boston to London landed at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, shortly after 5 a.m. British time, the pilot announced that Obama was the winner and applause broke out among the passengers.

"Sweet," said Ramatsu Sowe, a 66-year-old grandmother who was on the flight to visit her children in Britain. "I can't believe it."

(Johnson reported from Beijing, McClatchy special correspondent Shah from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Nissenbaum from Jerusalem. Shashank Bengali in Kisumu, Kenya, and special correspondent Munene Kilongi in Nairobi, Kenya, special correspondent Alla Burakovskaya in Moscow, special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem, special correspondent Mohammed Ali in Beirut, Lebanon, special correspondent Julie Sell in London, Tyler Bridges in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Leila Fadel, Corinne Reilly of the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star and special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad contributed to this article.)

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