The failure of US leadership

Being a superpower is no fun, even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times. The United States has to suffer not only the headaches that go with the job, but also a variety of troubles – some nuisances, some deadly – generated by today's world. In addition, America has been shooting itself in the foot.

Some afflictions have nothing to do with the terrorism and ethnic hatred that mark our days. Anti-Yankee feeling in Latin America is much older. In part simple envy, but more than that. Uncle Sam, who people had thought could easily give them a better life, seemed uninterested, choosing instead to fraternize with the generals and silver-tongued politicians able to rouse and control the masses. The partnership, it appeared, paid off for both sides.

This notion of a guilty association at the people's expense spread elsewhere, notably to the Arab world. The misery that pervades these countries is all the more bitter when seen against the Arab power and accomplishment of past centuries. They have stood still while the Western world surged ahead.

Democracy is only a figure of speech in of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. Populations and their existential difficulties are exploding. Who is helping the inadequate, oppressive, one-family, one-party regimes stay on top? (Even Egypt is going dynastic, with President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal being groomed to succeed him.) It is the US that most people see propping up their rulers. This certainly has contributed to the terrorism of Al Qaeda and 9/11 in which Saudis and Egyptians have been conspicuous.

There is an additional element, "the friend of my enemy is my enemy." The US, with global interests and reach, plays a central role in the Middle East including, most sensitively at the moment, as a friend of Israel. In times of peace this could raise no objection, but the almost uncritical backing that Washington has given Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's extremism has embroiled the US role in that controversy.

Mr. Sharon seems to believe that planting Jewish settlements in occupied territory; making life unlivable for the Palestinians through curfew, closure, and confiscation; wrecking their economy; smashing emerging democratic institutions; "thinning out" the Palestinians and ultimately "transferring" them to Jordan promotes Israel's security.

In the UN Security Council's most recent Middle East debate the US was pilloried for, among other things, setting a double standard, protecting Israel while condemning Iraq. No single act could do more to stabilize the Middle East and promote democracy there than building peace between Israel and a viable Palestinian state.

The Palestinians, who have been called the Jews of the Arab world, industrious and upwardly mobile, would shake off their moth-eaten leaders and neutralize the terrorist element that now thrives on the conflict. Just as the people of Israel, kept no longer in a state of alarm, would deal with their fanatics.

In less than 100 years, the US has emerged as the greatest economic and military power, with unprecedented political authority and its lifestyle a subtle influence worldwide. It has leadership thrust upon it, with others respecting its motives and judgment and joining in as they did in World War II, the postwar reconstruction, and the cold war. But in the past 10 years, local conflicts, and fractious allies have broken that stride.

The Bush administration's decisive response to 9/11 won universal sympathy and support but, on the whole, America has been sounding an uncertain trumpet.

The market forces which are an article of faith in Washington look like social Darwinism in the light of the '90s dotcom bubble, corporate corruption, executive thievery, and a dozen other scandals. Almighty Wall Street has tanked. The US locomotive of the world economy has all but stalled. The administration's contemptuous dismissal of nation-building has run head-on into the reality of Afghanistan, and may do the same thing in Iraq. The uproar over Iraq has split both the Atlantic alliance and the American public.

Disarming a monster and a menace like Saddam Hussein is widely endorsed. However, the administration has not been able to spell out exactly what it wants and how to get it. It has spoken with too many voices, some self-righteous and arrogant. The Bush doctrine of preemptive strike and regime change suggests that force may replace diplomacy, and that drawing a line between those "with us" and those "against us" is better than making friends.

United States leadership, shrill and ill-tempered, has lost too much credibility and respect. As Shakespeare put it, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves...."

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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