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The World is Watching: From Afghanistan to Venezuela, Obama vs. Romney battle captivates

Major publications and news organizations around the world have been following the United States' 2012 election, some following even the most minute details. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

News analysis

Updated at 8:22 a.m. ET on Nov. 5: Barack Obama's election to the White House in 2008 captured the world's imagination. 

His victory was heralded with a front-page headline proclaiming "The Day America Became a Little Bit Cool Again" in the U.K's Metro newspaper, Kenya declared a national holiday and even usually adversarial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez hailed the "historic" event.

As part of our The World is Watching series, NBC News journalists around the world set out to see whether four years had dampened that initial enthusiasm and examined what people in other countries think a Mitt Romney administration might mean for their daily lives.

Read on to learn what we discovered from people in nations including Iran, Pakistan, Britain, Cuba, Israel and beyond.

In the first foreign policy speech of his presidency, Barack Obama told the audience at Cairo University to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." He promised to support democracy, economic development and a Palestinian state, and stated his opposition to extremism.

Nov. 5: From dancing in the streets to Cold War echoes - ITN's Lindsey Hilsum reports on the world's reaction to Barack Obama's election.

Today, many in Egypt – arguably the Arab world’s most influential country and its largest in terms of population –  feel that hopes raised during the speech have been dashed. 

Their disappointment hasn’t necessarily translated into immediate support for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

“I don’t prefer either (Obama or Romney),” accountant Nasr Said, 31, said.  “America has one policy.  It doesn’t matter who is elected.”

Cairo University political science professor Horeya Megahid said that many people expected too much of Obama and now feel deceived. In the wake of the Arab Spring, she feels that he is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of liberal parties and movements.

June 4: President Obama delivers an address to the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt.

“But we don’t expect Romney to be any better,” she said.  “I hope that if Obama wins, he can make some changes in his policy and towards his understanding of what is going on in the Middle East.”

In Egypt's elections, politics is a new family affair

Dr. Amr Darag, a Muslim Brotherhood member and former parliamentary candidate, favors Obama’s campaign promises but doubts they will be kept. 

“Obama would be more understanding of the changes that have taken place in the Middle East,” he said.  

Darag said he doubted that Romney would change policies by offering more aid to the armed Syrian opposition or support to Israel if it attacked Iran. 

“War is no game,” he said.  “During campaigning, one might talk loudly about this but in reality, policy is made by experts and advisers, not by one man.”

Iranians inside and out of the country have learned over the decades that American decisions can have big repercussions on their country.

The Allied powers occupied Iran during World War II, forcing Reza Shah to abdicate in favor of his son. In 1952, President Harry Truman did not agree to overthrow the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. But in 1953, the CIA under Dwight D. Eisenhower helped oust the democratically elected prime minister and reinstate the Shah, arguably helping give rise to Shiite fundamentalism.

Now, what was once an important U.S. client state is a staunchly anti-Western Islamic Republic that refers to America as the "Great Satan." Fearful of Iran’s supposedly peaceful nuclear program, the West has slapped sanctions on the country. Israel, meanwhile, has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear installations.

'Our money is becoming more and more worthless every day'

Elmira, 26, knows the name of every U.S president since Richard Nixon and can recite each one’s policy towards Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer.

"I think that Romney might attack Iran and that would be terrible,” the student said.  “It is true that the sanctions have hurt us but war would be much more painful.”

Further afield the diaspora also holds strong opinions.

The regime does not represent the Iranian people, said one expatriate Iranian who asked that his name not be used.

 “(Romney) will take a stronger position on Iran, maybe he will attack and get rid of the regime once and for all,” he said.

The Iranian economy is in free fall, with its currency, the rial hitting a record low. NBC's Ali Arouzi reports.

However, Mohsen Rezaee, the former head of the Revolutionary Guard and presidential candidate during Iran’s 2009 elections, told NBC News that U.S policy towards Iran was set in stone and the only difference was the path each candidate would take to get to the same goal.

It’s unlikely that any Latin American country tracks U.S. politics more closely than the socialist island of Cuba.

“The elections are important to us,” Havana University Professor Esteban Morales said. “Almost as important as baseball,” Cuba’s national pastime, he jokingly added.

Also in this series: Despite bloodshed, Mexico is ignored during White House race

Indeed, American presidential elections are a spectator sport for many. From the moment Fidel Castro took power and immediately locked horns with Washington more than 50 years ago, the average Cuban learned to keep one eye trained north. The official position from the government has been to blame the U.S. trade embargo for much of the island’s economic hardship.

“Of course I’m paying attention to the U.S. elections,” said Havana cabbie Omar Martin, 46. “The outcome will have an impact here.”

Roberto Leon / NBC News

Havana cabbie Omar Martin

While not living up to every promise he made, Obama has made good on a pledge that restored the right of Cuban Americans to travel to see family and to transfer money to the island.

Miriam Leiva, a member of the political opposition, believes Obama has gained popularity because of the “bridges he built with the Cuban people.”

Roberto Leon / NBC News

Mirian Leiva

“People believe Obama promotes contact between the two countries,” Leiva said. “Romney would revert to a policy of confrontation with the Cuban government.”

Most Israeli Jews would be reassured if Romney won the U.S. presidential election – one recent survey showed most preferred the Republican to Obama by almost a three-to-one margin – feeling they had an unquestioning friend rather than a dispassionate critic in the White House.

“I hope that Obama doesn’t win because he is not good for Israelis,” said Daniel Sullam, a resident of Jerusalem.  “Romney is better since he sits and talks to (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and listens to him.”

“If we don’t attack Iran before they attack us they will attack us with an atomic bomb, and this is not a joke and … will affect the whole world and not only the Israelis,” Sullam added.

Also in this series: Israel, Iran name checks illustrate America's twin obsessions

Obama has been accused of trying to browbeat Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians, particularly in his efforts to halt settlement-building in the occupied West Bank, and of refusing to impose red lines on Iran's atomic project.

However, the U.S. and Israel are too joined at the hip on fundamental challenges for the head to make that much difference, some experts say. Any change would probably be a question of style over substance, they say, with a Republican administration expected to follow the path already laid out by Obama.

"There is a great deal of continuity in foreign policy," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and member of the ruling conservative Likud party. "Things don't change overnight if a new president takes power."

Palestinians tend to have a different take on the American presidential race, saying that the United States reflexively supports the Israel and disregards legitimate Palestinian interests.

Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But after years of talks failed to secure one many believe there is little difference between the two U.S. candidates.

“People know that the system in the U.S. doesn’t give much leeway to the candidate given the strong Israeli lobby,” said Mazin Qumsiyeh, biology professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit universities. “Candidates have to grovel at Israel’s feet to prove their candidacy.”

President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney discuss foreign policy in the third and final presidential debate.

The American passport holder said he would not vote for either Romney or Obama.

Palestinians say that growing Israeli settlements deny them a viable contiguous state, while Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank and Jerusalem and says the future of settlements should be decided in peace talks.

While the next U.S. president will not be able to buck the U.S.’s anti-Palestinian bias, Talat Batato said he admired Obama.

“I like Obama because he defied discrimination and repression by being the first black president,” said Batato, who works at an NGO in Gaza.  “But I don’t think Americans are mature enough to keep in him for longer.”

In season one of the “West Wing,” fictional British diplomat Lord John Marbury arrives in the Oval Office to advise the president. His approach toward the most powerful man in the world summed up thus: “You may have the power, but you need us British because we understand the world better than you do.”

It’s a good stereotype and it’s half-true. London continues to be a diplomatic center. And as one of America’s closest allies, the British provide an important link between the United States and the world.

Full coverage: NBCNews.com's The World is Watching series

But the reality is that Britain needs America more than the reverse. The U.S. invests more money in Britain that Europe does. And British foreign policy has been in lockstep with the U.S. for a decade. That’s why the British government is so cautious not to take sides in the general election: It knows it must work with whomever is elected.

“Insofar as U.S. elections tell us anything, it is more about the character of the next administration rather than the substance,” Michael Clarke, director general of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told NBC News.

From 2008: Londoners celebrate Obama's inauguration

While Obama appears to have no sentimental affection for the U.K., he might see Britain as useful in a more internationally focused second term.

“I think Obama might value more what the U.K. has to offer on the world stage, in a very hard-nosed way,” Clarke said.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and President Barack Obama have a personal bond that helps define their working relationship. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

So while on both sides of the Atlantic politicians and diplomats like to talk of the “special relationship,” a term invented by Winston Churchill, such a relationship is more important to prime ministers than presidents.  Presidents tend to choose to use it when it’s in their interests and ignore it when it isn’t. In this special relationship Britain is very much the junior partner, and she knows it.

Afghanistan has been heavily dependent on the United States since U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban in 2001, so who wins Tuesday’s election matters here.

One of the world’s poorest and least-developed countries whose economy relies heavily on foreign aid and where violence against women is increasing, it is under huge pressure to gain control of its own security before the deadline for foreign troop withdrawal.

“The people who are aware, who are educated, care about the election,” said Fayazulhaq Hotak, a government worker. “They know the importance of this election and the consequences of what will happen to Afghanistan. Maybe the new president will withdraw the troops earlier.”

Aref Karimi / AFP - Getty Images

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

Most of the people NBC News spoke to in a crowded market in Kabul had not heard of Mitt Romney, although everyone knew who Barack Obama was.

A key concern for many Afghans, with so many insider attacks and the constant threat faced by local police and Afghan military, is whether Afghanistan will be secure after the 2014 withdrawal deadline.

“I think Obama is better for Afghanistan than Romney would be,” IT specialist Azim Fakrhi said. His biggest fear is the withdrawal of NATO troops.

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Only a government worker, Fayazulhaq Hotaq, had clear-cut views on Romney.

“We are afraid that he will suddenly withdraw troops from Afghanistan,” Hotaq said.

However, most people are too poor and preoccupied to care about the elections, said Sayed Zaman.

“They are busy earning their daily bread for their own families,” he added.

There is huge support in the world’s largest Muslim country for Obama, who lived in Jakarta as a child.  Indonesians are also keenly interested in foreign policy issues, with many distrustful of the U.S. and its treatment of Muslims around the world.

“I do follow the race closely,” said Indonesian Ayu Hakim who spent more than a decade in the United States. “One thing for sure, Obama has made everything much more transparent by putting his plans, visions, goals, etc. on his website.”

Controversial Obama statue back in public view

Romney, on the other hand has not been as transparent, which reflects badly on him, Hakim said.

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel talks with Rachel Maddow about the news made in the third presidential debate, including President Obama's remarks on leaving Pakistan in the dark on plans to get Osama bin Laden.

Benny Handoko, on the other hand, hasn’t paid as much attention to this race.

“The previous one is the most exciting U.S. election in my living memory since it's a breakthrough, a historic achievement in terms of the U.S. having the first Black president,” he said. 

“Whoever is elected won't change American international policy drastically because I think they have to deal with domestic issues more. And American isn't as important,” he added.

Oil-rich Venezuela is run by self-styled socialist Hugo Chavez, Latin America's principal anti-U.S. agitator.  While Chavez’s populist largesse has won him elections, critics complain about the country’s rundown infrastructure, food shortages and violent crime.

When asked about the U.S. election, Patricia Paredes, 63, said she was worried that Obama was too liberal.

“He changed all of his views on homosexuality and abortion just to get votes,” the Caracas resident said.  “Romney will have a stronger hand.”

Chavez wins 3rd term, vows to deepen socialist revolution

This strong hand will put Venezuela under pressure and save Venezuela from Chavez, Paredes said.


The life of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez from his rise as a lieutenant colonel after his failed coup attempt in 1992.

Jorge Pérez Valery, 24, a journalist with Globovisión, does not agree that Romney would be a better candidate but he also doesn’t pin his hopes on Obama.

“If Mitt Romney wins, I think that Republicans would have a (stricter) policy towards Caracas,” he said. “I'm afraid that this attitude would just affect the people, but not the Hugo Chávez's regime.”

“(But) if Barack Obama wins, I sincerely think that there will be no change,” he added.

For many in the world’s second-largest Muslim country, the third presidential debate covered two existentially important areas of foreign policy: the hugely unpopular use of drones to target alleged militants and whether Pakistan and the United States should “divorce.” 

Whether either candidate represented a real change was up-for-discussion, however.

Pakistan's 'Generation Y' battles to shape country's future

Whoever occupies the Oval Office has little room move independently on Pakistan or any other foreign policy issue, said Ahsan Iqbal, a member of parliament for the Pakistan Muslim League.

“American foreign policies are made in places like the Pentagon where the institutional memory has little to do with who the president is,” he said. “Be it Romney or Obama, nobody is going to rock the boat.”

In Pakistan's largest city, 'Old Glory' is flammable and profitable

Still, Mohammad Waseem, a 40-year-old handyman from the capital Islamabad, said he hoped the election would bring a change from Obama, even though he did not even know the name of the GOP challenger.

“Obama hasn't been good for Pakistan. As we are Muslims, America wants to enslave us,” he said.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

Billions in foreign aid that have gone to Pakistan have done little to help regular people, Waseem said.

“The dollars they send here only go to the rulers,” he said. “Help us fight inflation. Help us find jobs.”

“Mr. Romney lacks 'shomin kankaku'," said businessman Choei Yamaoka in Tokyo’s Shimbashi, a mecca for Japan's middle-class salarymen. "And for continuity's sake, it’s probably better for Japan to have Mr. Obama remain President.”

"Shomin kankaku" is a popular term in Japanese politics that means "commoner's sensibilities," and acts as a barometer for politicians’ strength or public approval.

But it isn’t just commoner's sensibilities that are on the minds of Japanese people. Two decades of economic stagnation have forced Japan to relinquish its position as the world's second largest economy to China.

"Not only does Mr. Romney lack shomin kankaku, he seems too hostile towards China," housewife Shizuko Otani told NBC News.  "We need to work with China.”

Also in this series: Suspicion of US rife as Obama, Romney jab China

Still, Romney has some supporters.

"Looking back at the last four years, I have to say I support Romney," taxi driver Akio Hiraide said. "Past American presidents have all been more supportive of Japan. I just don't get that feeling from Mr. Obama.” 

If the U.S. presidential election were held in Germany, Obama would win by a landslide. In a recent poll by public broadcaster ZDF, 89 percent of respondents said they would vote for Obama if they could.

ZDF Political Director Theo Koll called the result “astonishing” and said Germans were impressed with Obama’s introduction of universal health care.

Reuters, Getty Images

In the final push in the 2012 presidential election, candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their last appeals to voters.

“The fact that Americans had no health system in a way Europeans would define a health system, that millions were without insurance, was quite strange,” he said.

From 2010: Europe 'dismayed' as midterms highlight Obama's struggles

One Obama fan is Simon Rossbach, a 26-year-old student in Mainz.

“I’ve liked Obama since he appeared on the political stage because of his personality,” he said while reading ‘The Hunger Games’ at the local Starbucks. “Romney’s demeanor and message make him appear unappealing.”

Indeed, Romney seems to be such a turnoff to some Germans that they cancelled their contracts with Allianz after a report that employees at the American branch of the insurance giant had donated to the Romney campaign.

Russia will be at the top of the foreign policy agenda for whoever is in the White House. Ordinary Russians give their view of the election to NBC News in Moscow.

Also in this series: Should next US president treat Russia as friend or foe?

Experts said Romney has a much harder stance, because he never visited Germany as a presidential candidate, while Obama drew a 200,000-strong crowd at his 2008 Berlin speech.

“Romney is just less known here,” Klaus Scharioth, a former German ambassador in Washington, D.C., told NBC News. “Obama has proven himself to Germans with his foreign policy efforts.”

Scharioth said many Germans feel that the Obama government is willing to include other nations in its handling of developments in the Middle East, Afghanistan or Russia.

Several hundred people are expected to converge in the dusty streets near the edge of the mighty Lake Victoria in Western Kenya where they hope they will see Obama re-elected.

“We will slaughter a number of bulls around here. People will drink and celebrate, they will sing and dance,” said Peter Okath, 33, who owns shops and a clothing business.

When Obama became president, Kogelo, described as Obama’s Kenyan home, erupted in celebration.  The jubilation ran through the country as many locals hoped that the election of an African-American president would lead to the promotion of issues affecting Kenya.

Nov. 5: Barack Obama's last living grandparent, 86-year-old Miss Sarah, invited any and everyone into the tiny village where she lives in Kenya in what became a national celebration. NBC's Ron Mott reports.

But those high expectations have largely not been met: A survey conducted for BBC found that Kenya was the most pro-Romney of the 21 countries where research was carried out. Some observers explain this by saying that like many African leaders, Kenyans are frustrated that the Obama White House hasn’t spent more in the region. 

NBC News' Amalia Ahmad, Tazeen Ahmad, Carlo Angerer, Ali Arouzi, Maria Camila Bernal, F. Brinley Bruton, Ed Flanagan, Paul Goldman,  Charlene Gubash, Lawahez Jabari, Rohit Kachroo, Wajahat Khan, Jim Maceda, Mary Murray, Kerry Sanders, Keir Simmons and Arata Yamamoto contributed to this report.  


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