Unsure About Uncle Sam

The question was about the long-term consequences of an Iraq war. But the Briton making the query at a panel discussion on global security drew appreciative laughter when he confessed what he really wanted to ask: Is America's foreign policy "sane?"

The six-day World Economic Forum Annual Meeting formally opened today in Davos with a promise from WEF president Klaus Schwab that the business and political leaders gathered here could "bond, bind and build" at "this very crucial moment of history."

But it was Swiss President Pascal Couchepin's speech that drew the most animated response from the meeting's attendees. Pascal was interrupted with applause twice: first, when he said that force should not be used against Iraq without the issue being brought before the United Nations' Security Council, and again when he said that force could only be used after "all other possible means of persuasion" had been attempted.

Concerns over Washington's foreign policy--and growing worries that the United States will take unilateral military action against Iraq--are already emerging as clear sub-texts to the Davos meeting this year. That mood stands in stark contrast to last year's WEF meeting in New York, where it had been shifted partly to show solidarity with a city still reeling from the attacks on its citizens. "After September 11, there was a tidal wave of sympathy for the United States," said Gareth Evans, president of the non-partisan International Crisis Group. "It's a pity that's all been blown."

Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia and a member of the global security panel attended by the questioning Brit, added that the problem was less U.S. unilateralism than "U.S solipsism-a problem believing that anyone else exists." One result, he said, was that the last 12 months had been "a year of terrible lost opportunities" for resolving problems in the Middle East, North Korea and Iraq.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an Indonesian analyst also on the panel with Evans, said mixed feelings about America were driving resistance in her country-the world's most populous Muslim nation-to war against Iraq. "Much of the opposition is not so much support for Saddam, but opposition to what the U.S. is trying to do," she said. One example: the way in which America promoted international law, "but then sees itself as above it."

"The opposition is not so much to U.S. power, but to how it is exercising that power," she said. Nonetheless, that did not mean countries like Indonesia did not appreciate American strength and resources. "We don't like the U.S. to be on top, but we like to have it on tap," she noted. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of State Colin Powell may find some solace in such comments about American largess when they address the forum on Friday and Sunday respectively. But given the tenor of today's talks, the snide comments are likely to outnumber the compliments.