Two events last week that are inextricably linked instead crossed newswires like ships passing across different oceans.
First, President George Bush nominated his pal Alberto Gonzales to follow in the hallowed footsteps of John Aschroft and Janet Reno as United States Attorney General. Second, though it wasn't actually reported anywhere, the Defense Department's main "independent" advisory body for research & development issues, the Defense Science Board, had its September 2004 package of recommendations for combating America's abysmal image abroad made public.
What's the connection? Gonzales famously advised Bush in early 2002 that the Geneva Conventions covering prisoners of war and civilians captured during war were "quaint" and "obsolete" regarding America's campaign against Al Qaeda. The DSB, meanwhile, spent 103 pages dreaming up new band-aids to slap on Uncle Sam's hemorrhaging reputation, which it attributed directly to a combination of the White House's decisiveness and its palpable disdain for any international limitations on its ability to act.
"More than 15 private sector and Congressional reports have examined public diplomacy" since October 2001, the report states. "There is consensus in these reports that U.S. public diplomacy is in crisis… America's image problem, many suggest, is linked to perceptions of the United States as arrogant, hypocritical, and self-indulgent."
The report, unlike the Bush Administration, sees anti-Americanism as a pressing danger to U.S. interests deserving of immediate corrective attention.
"Negative attitudes and the conditions that create them are the underlying sources of threats to America's national security and reduced ability to leverage diplomatic opportunities," it warns (italics mine). "Terrorism, thin coalitions, harmful effects on business, restrictions on travel, declines in cross border tourism and education flows, and damaging consequences for other elements of U.S. soft power are tactical manifestations of a pervasive atmosphere of hostility."
Contrast that with Bush's response in the second presidential debate when asked by a citizen what he'd do to "repair relations with other countries."
"No, I appreciate that. I—listen, I—we've got a great country. I love our values. And I recognize I've made some decisions that have caused people to not understand the great values of our country," were the first words that came out of the president's mouth. He then went on to compare his European unpopularity with Ronald Reagan's, insist that going to war in Iraq and pressing for democratization in Palestine were the right things to do, and to reiterate his Jacksonian opposition to any foreign shackles on American action.
"I made a decision not to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is where our troops could be brought to—brought in front of a judge, an unaccounted judge," he closed with. "You don't want to join the International Criminal Court just because it's popular in certain capitals in Europe."
That latter statement neatly highlights the Bush paradox of anti-Americanism: Sure, hostility toward the U.S. may cost the country ever-higher amounts in money, military manpower, and anti-American violence; but mocking foreigners makes for damned good domestic politics.
Republicans this November ran not just against Democrats, but the weaselly Europeans who sympathize with them. The Republican Convention was a four-day fuck-France festival; John Kerry was relentlessly (and falsely) accused of offering furriners a "veto" over American foreign policy, and the schoolyard taunts that he even looked French made the Massachusetts Senator pathetically defensive.
Anti-multilateral politics, of course, are successful in large part because multilateral institutions and treaties are so flawed. It does not take a brain surgeon to diagnose diabolical corruption and comical ineffectiveness at the United Nations, for example, and there are plenty of reasonable grounds for objecting to Kyoto and just about any other sovereignty-denting global treaty you can name.
But shaking off the shackles comes with a direct cost that the globe-changing Jacksonians rarely acknowledge. If there are few if any rules that the world's lone superpower will submit to, global public opinion will continue to rebel. Significant military coalitions will be that much harder to assemble, democratic countries will elect more anti-American governments, the U.S. Treasury will issue ever-more debt (putting further unholy strain on the dollar), and America's military manpower shortage will worsen.
President Bush claims to be confronting this problem by reaching out anew to the European leaders he ran against (even while selectively snubbing the weaseliest). But as long as he keeps stacking his Cabinet with people with contempt for international law, no amount of bon mots will paper over a gap that has become a chasm.
"Good strategic communication cannot build support for policies viewed unfavorably by large populations," the Defense Science Board found. "Nor can the most carefully crafted messages, themes, and words persuade when the messenger lacks credibility and underlying message authority… It will take decades to counter extremist terrorist recruiters and fully restore U.S. global standing and credibility."