During that seminal election of 1960, John F. Kennedy's campaign promised to close the "missile gap" with the Soviet Union. It was a stirring call, and of course as we now know, a great inversion of things. The United States had 2,000 missiles, the Soviets only 67. Today's equivalent of that liberty with the truth is the talk of America's standing abroad. Virtually all the presidential campaigns promise to fix the problem. We are alone, the contenders tell us, having squandered the respect of others. This is an old American tradition of self-flagellation, but after 9/11 and Iraq it has acquired the status of undisputed truth.
The new canon has even made it into Republican ranks of late. Here is former Gov. Mike Huckabee, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs: "The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad. My administration will recognize that the United States' main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists." In the circles associated with the Democrats and with liberal opinion, the canon of America's embattled isolation is fierce and uncompromising. We had been multilateralists once and are now loners; we had been skilled and now we ride unprepared into swaths of the world we barely know. There are the Pew global opinion surveys, essential to this canon: The Turks once loved us but now have a dread of America, and only 9 percent of them have a favorable opinion of the United States. We are unloved in Cairo and Karachi, and candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and John Edwards will close that "credibility gap." They will cast Pakistani ruler Pervez Musharraf adrift, and they will bring an end to our isolation from the lands of Islam and from multilateralist opinion in Europe.
But this narrative is defective; news of our demise in foreign lands is greatly exaggerated. The world of the 1990s had come to a catastrophic end on 9/11. It was the luck of the new custodians of American power to come into that inheritance. And truth be known, in its final year in office, this administration can boast of having measured up to some great challenges abroad. In Europe, the tide has turned against Islamic radicalism; America had emboldened the Europeans with its refusal to relent in the face of Islamism. Consider Germany and France: The leaders who traded on anti-Americanism are gone, replaced by a new generation of men and women who know a deeper truth about order and radicalism. For Gerhard Schroeder—a quintessential panderer—there is now Chancellor Angela Merkel, reared in East Germany, who is much closer to the zeitgeist of the Bush administration with its emphasis on freedom versus tyranny. Instead of Jacques Chirac in Paris, there is President Nicolas Sarkozy. Last November, before a joint session of Congress, he spoke movingly of those Americans who had fallen on the beaches of Normandy in World War II. France will never forget their sacrifices, Sarkozy said; it is to them that the French "owed the fact that we were free people and not slaves."
Conventional wisdom. It is the fate of those who provide order and protection in the world to be needed by others and to be resented at the same time. The conventional wisdom of this moment assumes that the Arab-Muslim world has been poisoned by America's military campaigns. But in these lands, anti-Americanism is at once a condition that can never be healed and a pose. It is claimed that America under George W. Bush has made its own poor bed among the Arabs by taking up the cause of freedom in Arab lands; we are damned for this interventionism. But America had been denounced the day before for befriending autocrats. Such sentiments about America are not amenable to reason. So we are hated in Turkey, what of it? It could be that we sinned against the Turks; conversely, it could be that Turkey today is an unhappy land, that the cultural war between the secularists and the Islamists has become fierce and intolerable and that the Turks are looking for a scapegoat. There is no way of conciliating anti-Americanism in Cairo; it infects even the men and women standing in line at the U.S. Embassy, dreaming of visas and green cards.
Presidential campaigns never take up painful truths. Otherwise, we would have a serious debate about our imperial burdens, and interests, abroad. We would look with appropriate irreverence and skepticism at the numbers given us by pollsters who pretend to know the mood and attitudes on foreign shores.