Imagine that it's 1959, and the Soviet Union has just announced that it's budgeting 75 million rubles to help fund opposition to Dwight Eisenhower and the Republicans. Question: Do you think that would have helped or hurt the Democrats?
Well, that's exactly what Condolleeza Rice and the Republican Administration have done by going to the Senate last week and publicly requesting $75 million to fund opposition to the fundamentalist government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Said Rice, "We will use this money to develop support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents and human rights activists.''
Even some Republican members of Congress are becoming afraid to be associated too closely with the Bush Administration, because they're worried about the upcoming election. So what do you think this announcement will do to the electoral hopes of Iranian politicians hoping to be elected on a reformist platform?
In fact, Middle East analysts like Juan Cole believe that Bush's public statements helped Ahmadinejad win his surprise victory over his more moderate opponents. Says Cole, "It seems most likely that Bush administration pressure on Iran, naming it as an axis of evil, making clear a desire to overthrow its government, and militarily surrounding it in Afghanistan and Iraq, pushed the Iranian electorate to the right."
There are two issues in play. One is overall Republican ineptness. For all their media-touted 'savvy,' the President, Vice President, and Cabinet leaders simply aren't very good at their jobs, as the nation finally discovered during Katrina. It takes an extraordinary lack of skill in the diplomatic arts to commit blunders like these, but Rice and her colleagues keep persevering.
The second issue is one I alluded to recently, which is the importance of what Gary Hart calls America's "Fourth Power." Hart has coined that phrase to describe to the influence the United States has traditionally been able to exert in the world, through a widespread perception that it'ss the home of democracy and the "keeper of the flame" for the once-revolutionary concept of representative government.
That "Fourth Power" is why world leaders from the right and center, and even leftist revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, once felt it necessary to pay homage to Abraham Lincoln and other U.S. figures. That power has been significantly eroded by the behavior of this Administration, and it will take some doing to get it back.
How badly has the US's reputation been hurt by this Administration? Take a look at this Pew Poll, which was conducted last year and documents the massive damage done to our world reputation by Bush's policies - damage that abated slightly in 2005 but remains deep and extensive. The Poll says:
"... the United States remains broadly disliked in most countries surveyed, and the opinion of the American people is not as positive as it once was. The magnitude of America's image problem is such that even popular U.S. policies have done little to repair it."
In case you're wondering why these countries dislike us, here's a clue:
"Among the publics around the world, a low regard for President Bush is more heavily correlated with an unfavorability rating for the United States than is any other attitude or opinion tested in this survey."
Our "fourth power" is most diminished just where we need it the most, in the Islamic world:
"Majorities in each of the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed express concern that U.S. military power may ultimately be turned against them."
The more the Muslim countries hate and fear us, the less likely they are to accept democratic initiatives from us. That means that thoughtless conservative Muslim-bashers like Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan aren't just spreading bigotry when they seek to inflame tensions between the West and ordinary Muslims - they're harming our national security.
I won't descend to Sullivan's level and suggest that these conservatives are mounting what "may well amount to a fifth column" by undermining our nation's efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. Those are words he once used to describe the anti-war left with whom he now essentially (and belatedly) agrees, and it's a remark for which he's issued only the most qualified and convoluted apology.
No, I won't call these conservatives "traitors" or a "fifth column," even though their recent efforts (and those of Alan Dershowitz and Bill Bennett) to further fan the flames of religous conflict stirred up by the Danish Muhammad cartoons act against the Administration's stated strategic interests for the Muslim world, as reflected by the President's condemnation of those cartoons. They are undermining the goal of "spreading democracy in the Middle East" by mocking Islam and urging that cartoons be published more widely here at home. "Spreading democracy" is the rationale the Administration put forward for the war when all its others collapsed - so if they crush that hope they're really hurt their friends in the White House.
I don't think they mean to undermine the war effort, but they should cease and desist for the national good. The Administration's doing enough harm without "a little help from their friends."
As if the Pew polling figures weren't enough, this Arab conference debacle also shows how this Administration's misguided war has wounded, not helped, our nation's ability to promote democracy (and grow the middle class) in the Middle East. This is a clear-cut case of a Bush initiative that I endorse in principle (yes, there are some) being undermined by his own actions - and by the erosion of that "Fourth Power."
Of course, there's another interpretation - the cynical one. That interpretation says that the Bush Administration and the Republicans want to keep players like Ahmadinejad in power, so that there are frightening enemies out there that can be used to play the "national defense" card in domestic politics.
I'm not that cynical. I want to believe the best about our leadership, so I'll stick with the less jaded interpretation: that these actions stem from utter ineptness in protecting America's interests. But then that's not much of a choice, isn't it?
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