U.S. 'greatest' rhetoric alienates many abroad
NEW YORK This month, President George W. Bush has called the United States "the greatest force for good on this earth" and the "greatest nation on earth." His vice president, Dick Cheney, has suggested that "when America was created, the stars must have danced in the sky." Other senior members of the administration have enthused that Americans are the "greatest people" on earth.
There is nothing particularly new about such assertions. The Clinton administration liked to refer to the United States as "the indispensable nation." Ever since the American Revolution, part of this country's self-image has been that of beacon of liberty to mankind.
What is new is the intensity with which such expressions of American greatness are made, their frequent couching in an idiom of religious mission, and the hostility and outrage that often confront such statements, even among friends of the United States.
Why is Bush harping on America's tremendous "transformational" impact on the world? Cynics would say he wants to win an election; the rhetoric finds an echo among many Americans. But the answer lies deeper, in a combination of circumstance and character.
Every now and again - as in Sarajevo in June 1914 - the turning world does an abrupt pivot on its axis and emerges on an altered course. This happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and presented a then relatively new administration with a crisis it has fashioned into a calling to transform the Middle East.
Such a mission was not an evident consequence or corollary of the attack; indeed, Bush began with the far more limited objective of hunting down Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." But Al Qaeda's blow to America happened to find in the White House a man who believes that "we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom."
It also found a president marked by Ronald Reagan's moral certitudes in confronting communism and flanked by aides such as Condoleezza Rice who were profoundly influenced by the cold war victory and by their role in the liberation of Central Europe and demise of the Soviet Union.
In other words, this is an administration with a penchant for that enticing but treacherous word: "transformation." In view of its decision to begin in Iraq a generational quest to change Middle Eastern societies - opening them, democratizing them and stabilizing them in the absence of autocratic rule - the repetitive rhetoric of America-the-Liberator is not surprising, especially given the daunting immensity of the task and its inauspicious beginnings in Falluja and Najaf.
Such talk also comes naturally enough to a man like Bush who believes freedom is "the Almighty God's gift to every man and woman" and who knows that America likes, and is accustomed to, the dialectic of a clear enemy whose defeat will advance freedom. The cold war's end brought triumph; it also brought disorientation until a new enemy was found.
This sense of God-given mission, especially its military manifestation, has proved maddening to many Europeans, and there can be little doubt that the administration's frequent portrayals of America as a "shining city on a hill" reflect the reality that the light is in fact dimmed. "We have believed for a long time that we do the most to make good things happen and prevent bad things happening," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But if we are wearing such attitudes on our sleeves, it is a reflection of the animosity that is more widespread and overt than at any time I can remember."
Put bluntly, after Abu Ghraib some insistence in seeking the moral high ground once more is probably inevitable.
Of course, there have always been people who have poured scorn on the notion of the United States as liberator - the dogged brigade who like to focus on American Indians, slavery, Hiroshima, Vietnam, dirty deeds in Latin America and the like. For them, nothing has changed.
What has changed is that old friends of America have begun to suggest a parting of the ways. Values have diverged, they suggest, with a religious, militaristic America confronting a world, or at least a Europe, that has put its faith in international institutions and speaks above all of peace.
"Everything divides us: that is what I keep hearing," said Ezra Suleiman, a professor of politics at Princeton now working at the American Academy in Berlin. "Religion, the death penalty, ecology, the use of the military. It is as if people have forgotten all we have in common."
In a recent speech on European values, the Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, used the word "peace" several times, with "solidarity" and "equality" not far behind. The war on terror did not figure.
The stuff of the European Dream is not, it seems, the stuff of the current American Dream. As a result, the Bush rhetoric is widely viewed in Europe as "delusional and arrogant," Suleiman said.
The problem, of course, is that the Netherlands and Belgium and Luxembourg, to name three founding members of the European Union, are very nice places full of thoroughly decent people, but they are not going to stop Al Qaeda, prevent terrorists from gaining access to nuclear weapons, oust the Taliban, assuage Central European concerns over Russia, police the Korean Peninsula, watch over Taiwan, disarm Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, or, in general, assume the cost of defending free societies. Nor are France and Germany.
Sometimes how things are said matters as much as what is said. One European ambassador in Washington commented that the problem with this administration is that it "takes the view that the only country in the world that never makes a mistake is the United States."
Greatness is one thing, infallibility another: An insistence on both is galling.
It is also galling to be told again and again that no greater force for good exists than the United Sates.
The statement may be true - I would argue that it is - but to protest too much is to invite disbelief and even disdain.