Paris -- Here where a mousse involves chocolate, like elsewhere else in a world that is actually round and scarily complex, November looms with deep trepidation. If given the chance to vote, the world beyond America would likely choose Barack Obama by 90 percent. And we had better understand why that is.
Whether they like it or not, most of those six billion non-Americans see Washington as the global capital, capable of great good -- or screwing things up beyond repair. And most see reckless folly in putting next in line to a 72-year-old president an intern no one knows whose foreign experience is limited to a Pizza Hut in Juneau. Among the Sarah Palin jibes choking the internet, one notes that she once registered the business name, "Rouge Cou," for Red Neck. Actually, that means Neck Red. Is this a small-bore quibble? Not when you consider the shallow grasp Sarah Palin seems to have on the world beyond her line of sight. It certainly rattles the French.
Who cares what the French think? Well, the French. The Russians care deeply what Russians think, and so on. With issues that matter, it is not only about us. There is no "Managing the Free World for Dummies." George W. Bush, who at least had a father who knew the ropes, tried to learn on the job. Look around you.
Rather than proving her doubters wrong, Palin hides from reporters while, her handlers explain, she takes a crash course on global leadership. If she is afraid of Keith Olbermann, how does she deal with Ahmedinejad? When she gazes in Putin's eyes, will she see a moose-hunting soul mate? When she finally faced Charles Gibson on ABC, her best shot was, "We are committed to a mission." That's how we got into this mess. And, at a time of tricky and hopeful Middle East dealings, she promised a blank check to Israel. Palin embraced the Bush doctrine -- anticipatory self-defense -- but clearly had no idea what it was. You can cram for a driver's license test but not the presidency.
And it is not just Palin. Campaign discourse suggests a simple-minded worldview, which terrifies people who understand that foreign policy is all in the nuances. John McCain should be president, his supporters argue, because he was tortured. True, he endured torture bravely. But then, do Guantanamo inmates also qualify? In fact, McCain has seen a lot of the world, and he knows what he believes. That is what worries so many people whose futures would depend on him. His more-of-the-same ideas worry other nations who watched America bumble into Iraq, block efforts to protect their environment, and torpedo the world economy.
McCain, as Obama charges, does not seem to get it. He once referred to the Afghanistan-Iraq border. That, Jon Stewart helpfully pointed out, is Iran. It is not about Republicans and Democrats. Bill Clinton, world-wise as he is, read the polls and abandoned Bosnia. After Americans recoiled from Somalia, he blocked U.N. attempts to stop a genocide in Rwanda. Would Obama be better? What is the option? He has lived beyond American borders. He listens. He foresaw the dangers in Iraq and tried to avert them. And more, there are all those non-Americans so eager for what he symbolizes and what he articulately promises. At the least, they know, he won't throw oil onto fires.
Eight calamitous years make it plain enough. No "superpower" can bend others' will by force. Waving a flag only works when the flag instills respect. Remember moral suasion, the application of authority but not force? We can be sure it works because Charles Krauthammer says it doesn't. Sometimes we need massive armed forces, like when we went after Osama bin Laden and nearly got him before a world-illiterate president veered us off to Iraq. But mostly our "hard power" works best when we don't have to prove how vulnerable it is to terrorists -- some other peoples' freedom fighters -- with Stone Age weapons.
A president must know how to speak softly while quietly hefting Teddy Roosevelt's big stick. Conflict is only part of it. We need broad and immediate action on global warming, on poverty, on food supply and water sources, and more balanced trade. "Solving" energy crises by drilling up more dwindling fossil fuel to squander is only stealing from our children.
Candidates who lie and distort their way into office cannot lead a world that scorns the people who elect them. Some voters might fall for Swift-boating or that pig-and-lipstick stuff, but our allies and enemies don't.
Americans put great faith in the second chance. If you lose a World Series, there is always next year. In the real world, everybody gets to play and there is no rematch. In the end, it comes down to a projected image of confidence backed by actual experience in how other nations and cultures live their lives.
Obama certainly appears to qualify. McCain seems too deeply programmed as a hawk. Joe Biden, no question. And Sarah Palin? Ask those 6 billion horrified non-Americans.