Washington: A Dysfunctional Democracy

Why are Washington policymakers so skeptical that George W. Bush’s surge plan for Iraq can work? In large part because they don’t trust Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The consensus in town: Maliki must get his act together, fix Iraqi governance and quell the out-of-control sectarian hatred in his country if America is to have any hope of success.

What’s missing here is that Maliki and the rest of the world have every reason to be skeptical themselves about America’s own governance, not to mention our out-of-control sectarian divisions. And if they don’t think we can get our act together and speak with a common voice, they may cut separate deals (in Maliki’s case, with Tehran).

All these problems were on display in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday as it debated a resolution opposing the president’s decision to send another 21,000 troops into what Sen. Chuck Hagel called "the grinder” of Iraq. “Don't hide anymore; none of us!” Hagel barked to his fellow Republicans, lecturing them from the moral high ground he occupies as a plain-speaking Vietnam vet who said publicly, earlier than most, that the Iraq invasion was wrongheaded. Hagel was simply asking his colleagues that if they opposed Bush’s plan, they have the courage to say so, rather than continue to act as a rubber stamp. “I want every one of you, every one of us, 100 senators to look in that camera, and you tell your people back home what you think,” Hagel said. “If we don’t debate this, we are not worthy of our country.” Although several Republicans expressed misgivings, only Hagel voted in favor of the nonbinding resolution in the end.

The Democrats, meanwhile, were caught up in their own internecine fight. “This is our moment!” said Sen. John Kerry, who had failed to seize the moment during his 2004 presidential run by refusing to attack the president over Iraq until the last six weeks of his campaign. As it turned out, this wasn’t really Kerry’s moment either—he announced later that day he would not run for president again. And he was promptly contradicted by his fellow Democrat, Russ Feingold, who remarked: “I’ve heard many of my colleagues today say this is the moment. I guess what I would say is: it should be the moment, but because we are not taking strong enough action, we will not rise to the moment.” Feingold, who wanted a resolution with teeth that use “our authorities under the Constitution” to cut off funding after a set date, went on to implicitly chastise his committee chairman, Sen. Joe Biden, for timidity. “Let me remind my colleagues on this side of the aisle—I’m so pleased we’re in the majority again—but we were in the majority when this war was approved,” said Feingold. “I see this committee and this Senate once again allowing itself to be intimidated into not talking about our real powers and our responsibility.” That prompted Biden to protest loudly—and perhaps a bit too much. “I may have a reputation in a number of things, but I don’t think it’s one of being intimidated by anybody, let alone a president,” a glowering Biden said. “If you find a person who’s spoken more frankly to seven presidents in the past, tell me who it was. So there is no intimidation here.”

Let’s face it: when you have to insist so hard that you’re not intimidated, you probably are. All this huffing and puffing about who’s got the guts to challenge a president who’s stuck at 28 percent in the polls! Here’s what was really going on: a group of Democrats supposedly enjoying their newfound majority on Capitol Hill were having a frank discussion, in full view of the world, about whether American government can function properly at all any longer. Biden is right—he has spoken out about Iraq for a long time. What seems to be gnawing at him is that it’s had so little effect. Even some Republican senators whined that the White House never pays them any attention (a perception confirmed by Vice President Dick Cheney, who told CNN on Wednesday that the Senate resolution “won’t stop us”). The administration “ought to sit down with us for the first time,” complained Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican, “and start talking about the concerns that we all have, so maybe we can come out of this being on the same page.”

There is a settled belief in Washington today that not only has the Bush administration bungled democracy in Iraq, it is shredding it at home as well. Not only did the administration destroy the interagency process inside the executive branch—especially in the first term, when Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ignored national-security adviser Condi Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell while the president stood by—it has rendered moot the legislative checks and balances intended by the Founding Fathers, as well—the kind that are supposed to prevent monumentally stupid blunders. This lesson is not lost on the rest of the world. “Americans think of Washington as the capital of America,” said an Arab diplomat, who requested anonymity owing to the sensitivities of his job. “They don’t realize it’s the capital of the world. We are all watching what you do.”

Plainly they don’t like what they see. A new BBC World Service poll of 26,000 people in 25 countries finds that just 29 percent of those surveyed now feel the United States exerts a mainly positive influence on the world. This compares with 36 percent a year ago and 40 percent two years ago. “According to world public opinion, these days the U.S. government hardly seems to be able to do anything right,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which helped direct the survey. Even in countries like Poland, which has been a devoted post-cold-war U.S. friend because of its perpetual fears of Moscow, mistrust is rampant, with positive feelings toward America dropping 24 points from 62 percent a year ago to 38 percent now.

These results contrast to an unsettling degree with surveys taken at the end of the '90s, and even as recently as 2002 (before the invasion of Iraq, in other words). A remarkable finding by a Pew survey that year was that despite criticisms of U.S. policy, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most people accepted a one-superpower world. Even in countries that have since become virulently anti-American, like Jordan, Egypt and Russia, majorities back then concluded that “the world is safer with the United States as the lone superpower,” the survey noted. Pluralities in Pakistan and Turkey agreed at the time.

All this now seems gone with the wind. It’s no surprise why. People around the world used to depend on America, in contrast to previous great powers, to play the part of an essentially benign actor on the global stage. We would use our powerful military only in the most extreme exigency, and reluctantly. We might occasionally go out into the world in force, brandishing all our high-tech weaponry and flaunting our sense of exceptionalism, but we would always go home again (though we might leave a military base or two behind). The Bush administration has rocked these beliefs to the core. In a presumed effort to reassert American power (as a corrective to Bill Clinton’s flaccid '90s), Bush has revealed the vulnerabilities of American power, both military and economic. Distracted in his effort to wipe out Al Qaeda, he has inadvertently strengthened it, ensuring that a small, fractious group that once had so little influence it was hounded out of every country it tried to hide in—except Afghanistan—would gain a new life in Iraq.

Consider the following trend lines, all of which suggest that countries are no longer depending as much upon the U.S. security umbrella: China recently shot down a satellite in a space-wars test, a stunning move that contrasted Beijing’s previous statements that it is interested only in “peaceful development” and is not building a military beyond regional capability. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used his energy resources to recreate a Russian sphere of influence in the East. Jordan’s King Abdullah, also once Washington’s firm friend, has expressed interest in his own nuclear program, saying the “rules have changed for the entire region”; and Japan’s new nationalist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is talking forthrightly of developing pre-emptive military capability. “Countries are making moves that reduce their dependence on sober and constructive American leadership,” says Princeton professor G. John Ikenberry. “My question is: how much of the damage that Bush foreign policy has done is irreversible?”

How much indeed? So, yes, let us hope that Maliki has the gumption and guts to save Iraq. But we need to do a better job of saving ourselves.