Last week George W. Bush and John Kerry gave major foreign policy speeches, and I agreed with just about everything each man said, which means they probably didn't say much of anything useful. President Bush laid out a five-point plan for Iraq; Senator Kerry laid out a four-point global foreign policy. Both speeches were resolute on terrorism and honest about our responsibilities to the Iraqi people. Both speeches were nattily written. Bush included some of his usual eloquent freedom riffs. Kerry's language was clear and clean, for a change. And yet, both speeches were dispiriting for their high-minded abstractions.
Then again, maybe I just wasn't in much of a mood to listen to speechifying about the international mess last week--certainly not to grand expositions of doctrine and principle tethered only vaguely to the horrors on the ground. My guess is, you're losing patience with being orated at as well. Some evidence: An ABC News/Washington Post poll tracked "emotional responses" to the situation in Iraq. The "emotions" measured sounded like a Postmodern parade of Snow White's dwarfs: Angry, Hopeful, Proud, Worried and Frightened. Angry had almost doubled, from 30% to 57%, since March. Hopeful and Proud had taken a hit (although Hopeful was a still robust 62%--this is, after all, America). Worried was 67%; Frightened, 37%. If Frustrated had been included, it might have scored 110%. Embarrassed would have done well too. Indeed, Angry is a bit vague for my taste. At whom? The President? The terrorists? The media? The French? All the above? On the other hand, anger, the experts say, is a primary cause of psychological depression. And most of the people I know, especially those following the situation in Iraq closely, are not feeling very peppy these days.
The fact is, America's sense of itself has taken a stunning blow. We are still recovering from the last week of April, when the Abu Ghraib photos were revealed and the U.S. military chose not to fight the Islamic radicals in Fallujah (a retreat compounded by last week's decision not to pursue Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army). Taken together, those events represent a coherent pattern of behavior--that of a schoolyard bully, who tortures the weak and runs away from the strong. This is, sadly, the way Abu Ghraib and Fallujah are perceived by our enemies. I was traveling through the Middle East as some of these events unfolded, and so the embarrassment I felt was direct and intense. The experience has been more oblique for most Americans, if no less intense. Think of the images--not just the torture photos but also the Saddamite general riding proudly into Fallujah and, of course, the beheading of Nicholas Berg. This is, literally, the stuff of nightmares; it is difficult to assimilate emotionally. And neither the President nor John Kerry seems able to acknowledge the souring American mood.