01/12/2006 05:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Road from Damascus

After two weeks in the Middle East, I'm having a little difficulty readjusting to the United States. While people in the Middle East were uniformly warm and friendly to me as an American, they were almost as uniformly appalled by America's political culture and by American policies at work in their region. And after looking at the stories that accumulated in my newspaper pile while I was away, it is hard not to join them.

While I was in Aleppo, Syria, avian flu appeared just a few miles away in Turkey. The Turkish government's response was to initiate extremely aggressive measures to monitor and identify cases. So effective was Turkey's surveillance that many experts believe that it helped establish the fact that bird flu is more contagious, but less deadly, than previously believed. Apparently, most cases in Asia had simply gone unrecognized.

But here in the U.S., Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was traveling the country telling the states that if they were struck by the flu, they were "on their own." Passivity remains official federal policy, even though Leavitt's PowerPoint contains, on its second slide, the statement "Preparing for a pandemic requires the leveraging of all instruments of national power, and coordinated action by all segments of government and society."

Of course, Leavitt's PowerPoint ends with a very different message: "For this reason, individual action is perhaps the most important element of pandemic preparedness and response."

We are now privatizing disaster response -- apparently the lesson the Administration drew from Katrina is that you can't be blamed for failing if you announce in advance that you won't even try.

But neither avian flu nor the pending collapse of the nation's private pension system were the big stories I missed while away -- instead it was scandal in Washington.

While I was gone, Jack Abramoff pled guilty to a variety of counts of fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe officials.

I was simply shocked. I'd assumed he had at least paid taxes on his boodle.

Other media documented the web of corruption that's spread through Washington: The Los Angeles Times reported that two Northern California Congressmen, John Doolittle and Richard Pombo, had intervened with federal prosecutors to quell the case against financier Charles Hurwitz for his role in his role in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan that cost taxpayers $1.6 billion. One unusual assistance they provided was to use their Congressional positions to obtain copies of the Justice Department's evidence against Hurwitz, and then to leak it to the defendant by placing it in the Federal Register.

In the wake of Abramoff's plea, Tom DeLay finally relinquished his role as House Majority Leader, but the Republicans who have stepped up as candidates to fill his shoes, for the most part, seem almost as thoroughly comfortable with Abramoff as DeLay himself.

Predictably, everyone lamented Abramoff's behavior, and rushed to return the campaign contributions they had received from him. But the Washington Post gave a prominent slot to an opinion piece suggesting that the sad thing might be that Abramoff would give a bad name to the otherwise hard-working lobbying corps.

And members of Congress, quietly, expressed alarm that it appeared that the Justice Department's lawyers were actually operating from the premise that if a member of Congress did a huge legislative favor for someone who had given them a large check, it might actually constitute bribery -- even if the check went to the Congressional campaign fund first, then into the pocket of the member's family or friends.

"Lobbyists are worried that perfectly legal contributions will sometimes be construed as prosecutable bribes and that their time-honored and (to them) highly valuable role as fundraisers might soon be thrown into question," reported the Washington Post.

No one in the Washington elite echoed the sentiment that public opinion polls -- long before Abramoff surfaced -- have shown dominates the country. Most Americans believe that campaign contributions in large amounts are, by their very nature, simply legal bribes, and that the politics of both parties are dominated by the exchange of contributions for favors.

Nor was there any meaningful demand among politicians for changes that would really get to the heart of the problem -- because such changes would cut them off from the shower of campaign gold on which they have become dependent. (Welfare reform is only for the poor.)

While these stories dominated media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, there didn't seem, among ordinary people, to be that much genuine concern or outrage -- it was almost as if we have come to expect this from our leaders, and maybe we have.

How did this toxic political mood remind me of my two weeks in the eastern Mediterranean?

Washington, it strikes me, has become chillingly like Damascus -- where the politics are corrupt and the population is disconnected.

Unlike Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, where politics are a matter of passion and intense concern, Syrians seem, like Americans, to be disconnected from their government. In their case, it is understandable; they have no role in selecting it. The Syrian political elite, including the opposition, live in different country than the bulk of the population. Recent reforms have allowed the relatively free flow of information in the form of newspapers printed in Lebanon and satellite dishes on every rooftop beaming in Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya. But all this information is treated by the public as a spectacle, one over which they have no control and which has little to do with their daily lives.

When the vice-president of Syria defected to Paris, and denounced the government as having been responsible for the wave of assassinations in Lebanon, Syrians speculated about who had paid him to tell his story (although most of them told me that they thought he was probably telling the truth) because he himself had been part of the old guard. The official Syrian press, which no one reads, reported on the howls of outrage emanating from Damascus at this "treason." The Lebanese published papers and satellite TV stations took the charges as confirmation that Syria did, indeed, have bloody hands in Lebanon. For most Syrians, this was a soap opera.

What really worries Syrians is not their own government, which they expect will gradually improve over time. What scares them is that the United States might decide to make them the next model for the forcible "democratization" of the Middle East -- and looking next door to Iraq, you can't blame them.

It surely should sober us that our political culture can now best be compared to that of a country we like to think of as crippled by abysmally bad governance -- except that Damascus is getting gradually better while Washington continues to decline. Fortunately, there is another political culture in America, outside Washington, and the news I encountered on my return from that quarter was very different -- more on that tomorrow.