By ALAN FREEMAN
Saturday, January 25, 2003 - Print Edition, Page A19
DAVOS, SWITZERLAND -- Harsh criticism of U.S. policy over Iraq and heated discussion about the United States' role as the world's only superpower dominated the normally polite seminars of the World Economic Forum yesterday.
Again and again, world leaders and other participants in the prestigious five-day talk shop criticized U.S. plans to topple the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and they charged the United States with hypocrisy for its policies on human rights and refusing to sign international treaties.
It was a dramatic change in the tone of the forum, which has been dominated in the past by U.S. chief executives, academics and Washington policy-makers, and whose sessions frequently were used to tout U.S. solutions to world problems.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Washington for maintaining its own stock of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons while insisting that Iraq must stop its development of weapons of mass destruction.
"No one is interested in eliminating their weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Erdogan said. "I mean all the countries in the world, the U.S. included.
"When you talk about WMD, you cannot [distinguish] between small and large states."
Earlier, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft during a debate that, "if you do start [a war against Iraq] you will kill a lot of innocent people. You are going to make a lot of people very angry, certainly a lot of Muslim people."
The Bush administration was also charged repeatedly with fomenting racism by singling out people from Middle Eastern countries or with dark complexions for extra screening at airports and border points as part of its campaign against terrorism.
These kinds of criticisms were too much for Senator Joe Biden, a Democrat who is frequently critical of U.S. President George W. Bush but clearly resented repeated criticism of the United States, especially from Europeans.
"I understand why the resentment exists," he told a forum session on U.S. foreign policy.
But he added: "We are not as bad as you make us out to be and in comparison with your own country we're pretty damn good."
Although he said his own views on civil liberties were diametrically opposed to those of the Bush administration, he lashed out at the French and Germans for thinking they were a model of how Americans should behave.
"Tell me about the acceptance of your French Arab brothers in France," he said sarcastically.
Mr. Biden also said that if the United States had not decided to intervene in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the Europeans would never have stepped in to stop the genocide.
"All I'm asking for is balance," the senator said. "I'm sick and tired of the lectures."
Mr. Biden agreed that the United States had to work on its image abroad and its policies. "But I don't think that anybody likes the big guy on the block, ever."
Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public Administration, said Washington exacerbates the problem by constantly reminding others that it is the world's only superpower.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that what the United States needed was "better behaviour" rather than "a better sales job."
He said that he could not understand the Bush administration's attitude on many international issues, including its recent vote against a UN resolution that called on countries involved in the battle against terrorism to respect human rights.
"People want a leadership role from America," he said.
In his appearance with Mr. Mahathir, Mr. Ashcroft clashed with fellow panelists on several occasions.
He took particular exception to a statement from the moderator that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
"I respectfully disagree with the idea that these terrorists should be endowed with the dignity of freedom fighters," Mr. Ashcroft said. "Frankly, they're fighting freedom."
He said that the Sept. 11 terrorists hated freedom and did not want women to take an equal place in society.
"I'm not willing to say that in order to avoid terrorism we have to give up values that are fundamental and downplay them to appease the terrorists," Mr. Ashcroft said.
Klaus Schwab, founder of the forum, said he wasn't shocked by the sometimes anti-American tone of the discussions.
"We cannot hide away different opinions," he said, expressing the hope that it would create more mutual understanding between Americans and the rest of the world.