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The Uncredible Hulk

It was day 14 of the war, and the headlines in the Spanish papers were awful. ABC of Madrid: civilian victims mount. El Pais, Madrid: dozens of women and children die. El Periodico, Barcelona: the daily massacre in iraq. At the Madrid headquarters of the state television network TVE, journalists were putting together the nightly news. Some wore antiwar buttons. They all worked amid no to the war banners erected by unions. And this was at a TV powerhouse run by a government that is pro-war.

As the deadline for the 9 o'clock news neared, grim footage, much of it picturing wounded Iraqis, flashed on scores of monitors. Setting aside his scripts for a moment, news anchor Alfredo Urdaci said: "What people are seeing on television is reinforcing all the doubts and concerns they had from the beginning. The planners said the war was going to be surgical, fast, clean. It didn't happen."

The war is now going far better for America. But the fact remains: the United States has lost hearts and minds--and credibility--all over the world, not just the Middle East. In the first two weeks of the war, most viewers were treated primarily to images of bloodied Iraqi civilians, stories of friendly-fire accidents and dire humanitarian needs--not the rah-rah catalog of Coalition victories evident on U.S. television. Pentagon suggestions that Saddam Hussein is dead--several times over--are reported uncritically on American media like Fox News, but are treated more skeptically in Europe and serve only to put Washington's war in worse light. This, --in turn, opens the door for outrage reporting in Europe, such as the German magazine Der Spiegel's cover story that compared the bombing of Baghdad to the carpet-bombing of Dresden in 1945. From the front page of the Greek daily Eleftherotypia blared the headline serial killers.

The saturation coverage means that even when the news is good--and particularly when it's presented by high-profile hawks like U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--fewer and fewer people are willing to listen. It was the patently unbelievable statements coming out of the Pentagon's "5 o'clock follies" briefings during Vietnam that gave birth to the dreaded phrase "credibility gap." It took decades for U.S. military and political leaders to overcome that legacy of popular mistrust--if not active dislike. Now, it sometimes seems, America has come full circle. "It's gotten to the point that, rightly or wrongly, the public doesn't know what to believe, except that it shouldn't trust America," says Felipe Sahagun, a columnist for El Mundo in Madrid.

The tenor of the news feeds upon an already virulent anti-Americanism. It taps into three-year-old suspicions of President George W. Bush's motives, intelligence and capabilities. And it is reopening historical wounds. In Greece people remember how Washington supported a repressive military junta two generations ago. So it was only mildly shocking when the film director Nikos Koundouros went on a TV chat show last week and declared: "Americans are animals. It is a statistical fact that the American mind stops developing at 13." The host didn't bother to challenge him.

To be sure, the war is only two weeks old, one U.S. diplomat in Europe protested last week. Yet it's also clear that attitudes are hardening in ways that could endure. A poll in Le Monde last week showed that a third of French people wanted Saddam Hussein, not the United States, to win the war. In Spain, arguably the most anti-American of the larger countries of Western Europe, a survey by the Elcano Royal Institute finds that 57 percent of Spaniards now believe the spread of American values, ideas and customs is harmful to the world. It also shows that 35 percent of Spaniards have a "somewhat unfavorable" view of the United States. The comparable figure for Germany was 31; France, 26; Argentina, 38, and Pakistan, 10.

These attitudes are shaped as much by history as by Iraq, or even Bush himself, says Charles Powell of the Elcano institute. At the end of the 19th century Spain lost the last of its colonies to the United States in the Spanish-American War. The pain hasn't gone away; the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, which sparked that war, came up in Madrid recently during a parliamentary debate on Iraq. With even greater bitterness, Spaniards remember Washington's support for the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in their own country, as well as for a host of tyrannical rulers in Latin America during the 1970s. So when they see U.S. Marines storming through Iraq, they remember the Marines landing in the Dominican Republic or propping up the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Small wonder that graffiti on the walls of Athens reads damn columbus for his curiosity.

Powerful as it is, the United States seems unable to fight this process, despite giving increased access to international journalists on the battlefield or promoting, from a glitzy Hollywood-designed set in Qatar, the massive humanitarian push it's making in Iraq. In fact, a senior U.S. diplomatic source in Europe reports that Washington has "given up" trying to shift public opinion in countries like France and Germany, both considered to be lost causes as far as the Bush administration is concerned. Instead, Washington will "focus on its friends," as this source puts it--like Spain.

But all that really amounts to is placing articles by palatable Americans, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the Spanish press. It can't do much more because Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's strong pro-U.S. stance is part of his problem: if anything, he needs to distance himself from what the Spanish press sometimes calls the "Bush regime." Indeed, with Washington's "help," antiwar sentiment rose last week to its highest level yet--more than 90 percent. For Washington, the picture that's developing is far from pretty.

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