Having shored up the “special relationship” with Britain’s Tony Blair over the weekend, George W. Bush now begins what may be the biggest week of his presidency. On Wednesday, he will mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Then, in this same great American metropolis, the president on Thursday addresses the world at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. Whatever the world may think of George W. Bush, he certainly will have its attention. What a golden opportunity these two events could be to address the most serious long-term problem facing this nation: the yawning gap between our own beneficent self-image and America’s reputation abroad of being a dangerously selfish bully.
THE UNITED States is uniquely delusional right now. To put it less finely: We believe our own propaganda. An attack on Saddam’s Iraq is an anti-terrorist measure because we say it is. Our war against drugs in Colombia is really part of the war on terrorism because we say it is. Ariel Sharon and Gen. Pervez Musharraf are “men of peace” because we say they are. The Iranians are “evil” but the Saudis are “good” because we say they are. The United Nations’ opinion of anything we do (or the opinion of the U.S Congress, for that matter) is irrelevant because we say it is. The problems of the world are simple: they are black and white, good and evil, with us or against us, dead or alive. (Coming soon: Osama bin Laden is dead, because we say he is!)
FACTS AND FANTASIES
The world hears this claptrap from the most powerful government on the planet and trembles. It’s not that other nations are confused about why the United States is, say, supporting Musharraf in Pakistan or concerned about Saddam’s quest for nuclear weapons. Many of them agree, and many wish us well. What they cannot understand is the self-defeating way this administration chooses to market these things to the wider world. It is as if Washington’s political class has lost the ability to distinguish between potential voters and potential allies: We now treat them both like chumps.
Having spent the second half of the last century helping to turn much of the planet into market-oriented democracies, is it really reasonable or intelligent for an American government right now to expect to get the kind of mindless support for our agenda that we used to get from anti-communist dictators like the Shah or Marcos or Suharto or Mobuto? These days, even Indonesian and Argentine leaders have voters to face, and those voters want to know the real reasons behind decisions, not the rhetorical window dressing written for them by American political consultants.
What a breath of fresh air it would be next Thursday if, fresh from a moving commemoration of the attacks of Sept. 11, George W. Bush strides into the United Nations and talks about facts instead of fantasies. Spare us the stirring rhetoric about spreading democracy even as we support its suspension in Pakistan and its complete absence in Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.
Tell us instead why Iraq’s regime needs changing.
“Yes,” the president might say, “we want Saddam Hussein removed from power. I admit that my daddy made a terrible mistake in 1991 not doing it then, and I ask you to join the United States in demanding, by force of arms if necessary, that Iraq readmit weapons inspectors and hold internationally monitored elections within a year.”
Then surprise us. Show us the evidence, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson did in 1962 when he produced satellite photographs of Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. Compromise sources - this is war, for Christ’s sake! Then push for a resolution. What is there to lose? If we’re going to ignore the United Nations - an organization we invented, by the way - why not try to get what we want from it first?
CALL THEIR BLUFF
Beyond Iraq, invite the United Nations to take over the rebuilding of Afghanistan - but don’t abdicate our own responsibility for making sure the job gets done properly. Abdicate is precisely what we did in 1991, when the first Bush administration wrote the Afghanistan that our CIA funds helped free from Soviet domination as too much of a mess and too remote to worry about.
Call Europe’s bluff, too. No one wants to take over the current modest Afghan stabilization force that patrols Kabul once the British turn is up in a few months. What kind of nonsense is that? Shame the French, or the Germans, or the Italians into stepping up to the plate. Tell them to prove, once and for all, that their disgraceful failure to prevent atrocities in Bosnia in the early 1990s was the exception, not the rule. Dare these internationalist peacekeeping enthusiasts to show us how to do it!
What, exactly, does this administration fear so much about “the international community?” And is it not so painfully obvious to these veterans of the Cold War that, by treating the world as if it does not matter, the Bush administration has succeeded in giving aid and comfort to our enemies? Has Saddam ever had so much sympathy?
IT’S ONLY PHYSICS
Not many Americans would agree that their country is a selfish bully dangerously rampaging across the planet. Certainly George W. Bush would bristle at this - as would any president. America is too big a place to generalize about (and so is the rest of the world, for that matter). But it might fairly be said that the average American finds it hard to accept all the hand-wringing over America’s behavior we’re hearing in Europe’s two dozen languages given that, without us, the only lingua franca there right now would be German (or, quite as possibly, Russian). Viewed from these shores, much of the rest of the world looks not so much menacing as impossibly flawed, hobbled by hatreds that predate this country’s creation, led by dictatorial clans who have a far more damaging influence on their own people than any foreign influence.
But it is equally true that we Americans, on the whole, cannot fathom life in a small nation buffeted by the random terrors of war, refugee crises, famine, natural disasters, poverty and disease. What we Americans call “Iraq,” for instance, is really Saddam. We use the terms interchangeably, as if there are not millions of people under his regime. In the rest of the world, much of which has very recent memories of what it is like to be targeted by American nuclear weapons just because you’re enslaved by a despot, the perspective is different. Iraq has Iraqis, too.
As a rule, Americans know very little about geography, national surveys consistently show, in part because such knowledge has not seemed necessary.
TRY TO IMAGINE ...
The United States is so huge and powerful relative to the rest of the world that it doesn’t notice the inadvertent damage it does as its companies, soldiers, bureaucrats or cultural goods move across the planet.
This national myopia, as much a product of physics as ignorance, is taken by the rest of the world as arrogance. Belgians, Rwandans, Laotians and Lebanese know a great deal about other nations because the actions of their neighbors have an enormous and direct impact on their lives. Each has learned the hard way the risks of ignoring, or baiting, the people next door.
That simply isn’t true here. That is not to say there isn’t a downside, as well. The luxury of living life in a gargantuan and dominant nation has led to a situation where few of us give much of a damn about the rest of the world. Far too many Americans continue to view the world just as the the Pilgrims did, that anything beyond their settlements was inherently evil — an “Army of devils,” in the preacher Cotton Mather’s words, waiting for the right moment to strike.
George W. Bush likes to speak in such terms. If he does so again at the United Nations this week, he will permanently alienate a world inherently sympathetic to American aims when they are properly explained. The world doesn’t want or need another “good vs. evil” speech that would just as well be equally suited for a presidential visit to an American grade school. They want the facts, Mr. President, and if you provide them, you might be surprised at the results.