09/22/2006 10:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Owning the World

Hugo Chavez, the firebrand president of Venezuela, visited the UN this week and called President Bush "the devil." Specifically, Chavez told the assembly, "The devil came here yesterday. He came here talking as if he were the owner of the world." How should we react to that accusation? On the surface it was a reckless political jibe like the one Krushchev hurled at the U.S. when he pounded his shoe and shouted "We will bury you!" That display also took place at the UN, about fifty years ago, and was meant as pure theater.

But at some level Chavez got it right, the second part at least. Neo-conservative theory, beginning after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wanted to promote the world's only superpower into the owner of the world, in the sense that America could work its will anywhere without opposition. Iraq has proved how unworkable that theory actually was in practice.

Looking even deeper, Chavez's outburst has more disturbing implications for all of us, not just the right wing. He was accusing the U.S. of moral bankruptcy, a message that's become enormously popular in recent years. He was defying our power, which other countries like North Korea and Iran also do with impunity. He was brandishing a new kind of power based on oil (Venezuela, the country that founded OPEC, has a keen sense of the power that oil-rich nations can wield), and also based on outrage. Without oil, every OPEC country would be as impoverished as its neighbors, and Chavez, speaking from the far left, represents the voice of the dispossessed. He hates America for being rich, for maintaining an arrogant post-colonial attitude, and for assuming that we are privileged in everything we think and do around the world.

Perception is reality, and millions of people agree with him. The neo-conservative policy of owning the world has been disastrous, and yet the American public has been slow to give up the idea that we have a right to own the world. Global dominance has been our birthright since the end of WW II and the Cold War, when "freedom" became the slogan that justified anything America did abroad.

We need to wake up and realize that we are a long way from standing for freedom today. By interfering in other countries' politics, backing reactionary regimes, selling arms on a massive scale, spreading environmental poison, and forcing our will through military means, the U.S. occupies the moral low ground in the eyes of the world. These are facts, and although there are other, more positive facts to counter them, Chavez spoke the truth in emotional terms. The best thing America can do to reclaim the high ground is to stop trying to own the world and begin to shape ourselves into a friend that the world can turn to without fear and outrage.