Thomas: The Politics of Arrogance

When angry young jihadists start to denounce America, the word that quickly comes to their lips and onto their Web sites is arrogant. Not only jihadists but just about anybody around the world uncomfortable with or resentful of American hyperpower thinks of the United States as an arrogant nation.

It might stand to reason, then, that as America tries to repair its reputation around the world, the presidential candidates in both parties would be talking about the need for humility. But they don't. Many of them give lip service from time to time to the need to be "strong but humble," but humility is hardly a resonant theme in any candidate's platform. Why? Because while candidates might reasonably want to look humble to foreign audiences, to the folks back home they are fearful of looking weak. No candidate wants to be called a wimp.

When NEWSWEEK harshly suggested that George H. W. Bush was "Fighting the Wimp Factor" in a cover story in 1987, the elder Bush never forgave the magazine or its editors—and to this day grumbles about the unfairness of the label. (He has a point: though the article was more nuanced, the headline gave the impression that Bush, a former combat pilot and man of considerable political integrity, was somewhat soft and wishy-washy.) An American presidential candidate can no more afford to appear to be soft than he (or especially she) can be gloomy or negative. Ronald Reagan defined successful modern campaigning—upbeat and resolute—partly in opposition to the man he defeated in 1980, Jimmy Carter, who used the unfortunate French word malaise to describe the American mood. (Actually, it was a Carter adviser who used the word. No matter, it stuck.)

Democrats are in a particular bind. Ever since George McGovern campaigned on a neo-isolationist platform in 1972 ("Come Home, America") and lost 49 out of 50 states to Richard Nixon, the Democrats have labored under the impression that their party is somehow weaker than the Republicans. One cruel cliché pictures the Democrats as the "mommy party"—nurturing but soft—while the Republicans are the "daddy party"—sterner and tougher. At a time when Americans feel threatened and "security" is important to many voters, the "mommy party" label is a burden to Democrats.

It is a particular obstacle for Hillary Clinton. She is well aware of the need to look steely and tough on foreign policy, hence her vote for the Iraq war and hawkish views on national security generally. She must navigate carefully, trying not to look too tough but never letting her guard down. Lately she has been laughing heartily to show that she is not too cold (or "bitchy"), but she's also been hammering her chief foe, Barack Obama, whenever he gets too gooey-eyed about negotiating with America's enemies. Obama, too, cannot afford to seem soft, and as a result has waved a big stick without really thinking through the consequences. His vow to send troops into Pakistan if the Musharraf regime failed to track down Al Qaeda chieftains made him seem worse than soft: naive.

There is a fearful, insecure quality to the bluster of presidential campaigners. Truly strong people, of course, are not arrogant. They are humble. It would be reassuring if the candidates could admit what the rest of the world already knows: that America, for all its "exceptionalism," does not have all the answers. Of course, rhetoric is cheap. The modern politician who seemed to best understand the value of humility was George W. Bush. During the 2000 presidential campaign he said at one of his debates against Al Gore, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us … Our nation stands alone right now … in terms of power. And that's why we've got to be humble … One way for us to be viewed as the Ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, 'We do it this way; so should you'."

Wise words from Candidate Bush. We know what happened when President Bush failed to heed them.

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