The lack of political credibility that delineates the rapid fall from grace of Idaho's senior senator is analogous to that facing America's diminished role as global leader in 2007. At first glance, the gay-sex scandal involving Republican Larry Craig may seem to have little to do with the ability to explain America's weak standing in the global community. But hard lessons often emerge from the strangest of places.
Political scandals in the United States are usually defined by two fundamental elements. First, "the act" – when an individual perpetrates some sort of moral, legal, or ethical transgression that offends the country's cultural traditions, breaks its laws, or crosses some red line in its accepted codes of conduct. "The act" is usually made worse when the person responsible tries to deceive, deny, or obfuscate its existence. This second element, sometimes known as the "coverup," is usually the fatal blow to a perpetrator's already damaged credibility.
History is full of examples. Richard Nixon fell from the highest office both for ordering the Watergate break-in and for illegally sending US troops into Cambodia, but he sullied his reputation even further by conspiring to cover up these crimes. "The act" of having oral sex with a young intern in the Oval Office nearly ruined Bill Clinton, but it was lying under oath in the Paula Jones civil suit that got him impeached on a charge of perjury. He may have survived his painful trip to the Senate's politically charged docket, but his presidency was profoundly diminished by the whole grimy affair.
The same holds true for Larry Craig. Soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom is a behavior that even the most cynical left-wing activist Democrat doesn't instinctively associate with Republican in-iquity. Having gut-shot himself with this act of sordid impudence, Craig's subsequent retractions, denials, and increasingly lame attempts to "explain" the situation by blaming the press and the police equate to metaphorically blasting away at his remaining political toes with a 12-gauge autoloader. His tale is simply not credible, and we all know that.
What most Americans often don't seem to realize is that a Craig-like credibility gap characterizes how the US is perceived by much of the outside world. Indeed, it is safe to say that America's various "acts of goodness" are perceived by many Muslims as promoting gross injustices in the Middle East. Despite the wide array of religious opinions among Islam's various sects, there is a single viewpoint that is shared by Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis, and others. Muslims nearly everywhere agree that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal from the Israelis and that the US government's words simply do not reflect its actions when it comes to judging all countries in the region equally.
The US promotes democratization in the Middle East and has taken direct action by invading Afghanistan and Iraq to bestow the blessings of democracy. However, for Muslims, the coverup emerges when Washington then rejects the outcome of the democratic process following Hamas's victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, and when it disregards the fact that in Lebanon Hizbullah is an elected part of the government. Washington ignores the fact that Iran is a democracy (albeit one of a very theocratic sort) with hotly contested elections.
Moreover, in Afghanistan and Iraq the democracies that the US has installed appear to be contributing causes of the ongoing Islamic insurgencies that threaten to spread throughout the region. The US preaches democracy as a broad policy mandate, only to reject it when it produces results America doesn't like.
What further widens the credibility gap is the United States' strong support for authoritarian governments in places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As a result, many Muslims around the world are justifiably cynical when they hear Americans exhort them to become more democratic. Most Muslims abhor the extreme violence of Al Qaeda's radical jihadists, but they are also repulsed by the heavy-handed injustices they perceive as being perpetuated by their own US-supported governments against voices of political dissent. To them, America can't have it both ways.
Until future US presidents and Congresses work together to shrink the distance between America's political rhetoric and its actions on the ground, many global citizens will look on the US in the same way most Americans now look on people like Larry Craig.
America's finest leaders of both parties have been guided by the principle, "Say what you mean and do what you say." It is time for them to do so again.
Douglas A. Borer is an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. His most recent co-edited book is "Information Strategy and Warfare: A Guide to Theory and Practice." The views here are his own.