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Former diplomat explores U.S. foreign policy issues

Most Americans don’t pay attention to foreign policy. They’re more interested in debt, health care and issues closer to home.

“Foreign policy seems like something exotic,” former diplomat Ronald Woods told a gathering of the League of Women Voters in Oak Harbor Thursday.

While people in Oak Harbor may be more in tune with foreign policy issues, due to so many loved ones involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, they are not the norm.

To most Americans foreign policy is, well, foreign.

Woods said foreign policy studies show close to 80 percent of Americans don’t pay attention to the U.S. government’s foreign policy. They don’t read international news or engage until there is a crisis.

Another 20 percent follow the news carefully, but don’t engage enough to have an opinion.

“They are aware but not focused,” Woods said.

A much smaller number were like those gathered in a banquet room on a sunny spring night to hear an academic talk: “You are the people who make a difference,” he said. “You know the issues and develop opinions.”

Woods retired in Seattle after a long career in the United States Foreign Service. His postings included Brussels, Oslo, Madrid, Strasbourg, Paris, Rome, Cairo and London. In the 1970s he was staff director for Henry Kissinger, and he is currently an affiliate professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

The self-confessed “foreign affairs junkie” explored three questions for his Oak Harbor talk: Is there enough information on foreign policy available, why do they hate us, and what issues are important in the presidential election.

Woods said if anything there is too much information available to the average news consumer, especially with the Internet.

“You have to determine how to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Woods said.

From Vietnam to Somalia and now Iraq, Woods said the press sets the foreign policy agenda like never before. The issues people know about are the issues where the press is. President George Bush didn’t send humanitarian troops to Somalia until CNN broadcast images of dying African children into American living rooms, Woods said.

Ten months later those same viewers were shocked by the images of a mutilated American Marines being dragged through the streets. A complete pullout of troops soon followed.

“The media can decide the agenda, but not make foreign policy decisions,” Woods said.

From his years abroad talking with Europeans about America, Woods offered his perspective on why other countries might hate us.

“Great powers attract negative attention,” he said. He suggested that all the U.S. could do was be ourselves, and act positively on the world stage.

“We can’t impose our will on others,” he said.

Some Europeans think the U.S. death penalty is barbaric — it is the only Western nation to have one — while others wonder why there is no social safety net, with more than 40 million Americans without health insurance.

“In other societies family is more important; religion plays a bigger role,” Woods said.

People also perceive the U.S. Arab-Israeli policy to be one-sided, heavily in favor of Israel.

“Until something is different in that area we won’t be able to capture a lot of hearts and minds,” Woods said.

And of course, the war in Iraq has tarnished the American image among former allies.

Woods noted that when George W. Bush was campaigning for president he said the NATO alliance would be the centerpiece of his foreign policy, and that there would be no nation building.

Post 9/11, Europe was behind the United States, and NATO voted for military sanctions for the first time in its 50 year history. Middle Eastern countries, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, all supported the U.S.

“It’s strange to look at where the administration has gone,” Woods said.

Bush’s “axis of evil,” “You’re either with us or against us,” declarations and his preemptive strike policy scares the Europeans, Woods told the group, to which a woman replied, “It scares us too!”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Woods felt the top election issues were Iraq, American values and U.S.-European relations.

Woods, who said he voted for Bush, took exception to the president’s claim of a coalition fighting force in Iraq.

“That’s not really true,” Woods said. “Our primary allies are not there. (Bush) has burned a lot of bridges with his policy of number one unilateral power.”

An attendee asked Woods what he would say to a young person considering a career in the foreign service.

Woods said diplomats must support the president, whoever that may be and regardless of their personal feelings. If they want to make the world a more just place, such as through human rights or development projects, “they should look someplace else,” he said.

“Foreign policy seems like something exotic,” former diplomat Ronald Woods told a gathering of the League of Women Voters in Oak Harbor Thursday.

While people in Oak Harbor may be more in tune with foreign policy issues, due to so many loved ones involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, they are not the norm.

To most Americans foreign policy is, well, foreign.

Woods said foreign policy studies show close to 80 percent of Americans don’t pay attention to the U.S. government’s foreign policy. They don’t read international news or engage until there is a crisis.

Another 20 percent follow the news carefully, but don’t engage enough to have an opinion.

“They are aware but not focused,” Woods said.

A much smaller number were like those gathered in a banquet room on a sunny spring night to hear an academic talk: “You are the people who make a difference,” he said. “You know the issues and develop opinions.”

Woods retired in Seattle after a long career in the United States Foreign Service. His postings included Brussels, Oslo, Madrid, Strasbourg, Paris, Rome, Cairo and London. In the 1970s he was staff director for Henry Kissinger, and he is currently an affiliate professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

The self-confessed “foreign affairs junkie” explored three questions for his Oak Harbor talk: Is there enough information on foreign policy available, why do they hate us, and what issues are important in the presidential election.

Woods said if anything there is too much information available to the average news consumer, especially with the Internet.

“You have to determine how to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Woods said.

From Vietnam to Somalia and now Iraq, Woods said the press sets the foreign policy agenda like never before. The issues people know about are the issues where the press is. President George Bush didn’t send humanitarian troops to Somalia until CNN broadcast images of dying African children into American living rooms, Woods said.

Ten months later those same viewers were shocked by the images of a mutilated American Marines being dragged through the streets. A complete pullout of troops soon followed.

“The media can decide the agenda, but not make foreign policy decisions,” Woods said.

From his years abroad talking with Europeans about America, Woods offered his perspective on why other countries might hate us.

“Great powers attract negative attention,” he said. He suggested that all the U.S. could do was be ourselves, and act positively on the world stage.

“We can’t impose our will on others,” he said.

Some Europeans think the U.S. death penalty is barbaric — it is the only Western nation to have one — while others wonder why there is no social safety net, with more than 40 million Americans without health insurance.

“In other societies family is more important; religion plays a bigger role,” Woods said.

People also perceive the U.S. Arab-Israeli policy to be one-sided, heavily in favor of Israel.

“Until something is different in that area we won’t be able to capture a lot of hearts and minds,” Woods said.

And of course, the war in Iraq has tarnished the American image among former allies.

Woods noted that when George W. Bush was campaigning for president he said the NATO alliance would be the centerpiece of his foreign policy, and that there would be no nation building.

Post 9/11, Europe was behind the United States, and NATO voted for military sanctions for the first time in its 50 year history. Middle Eastern countries, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, all supported the U.S.

“It’s strange to look at where the administration has gone,” Woods said.

Bush’s “axis of evil,” “You’re either with us or against us,” declarations and his preemptive strike policy scares the Europeans, Woods told the group, to which a woman replied, “It scares us too!”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Woods felt the top election issues were Iraq, American values and U.S.-European relations.

Woods, who said he voted for Bush, took exception to the president’s claim of a coalition fighting force in Iraq.

“That’s not really true,” Woods said. “Our primary allies are not there. (Bush) has burned a lot of bridges with his policy of number one unilateral power.”

An attendee asked Woods what he would say to a young person considering a career in the foreign service.

Woods said diplomats must support the president, whoever that may be and regardless of their personal feelings. If they want to make the world a more just place, such as through human rights or development projects, “they should look someplace else,” he said.

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