The old-time religion

February 03, 2003

WHEN ABRAHAM Lincoln called the United States "the last best hope of Earth," in 1862, Europe was still in thrall to monarchies and a great part of the rest of the world was in thrall to European imperialism. The lonely American experiment in republican government had been sorely put to the test by the Civil War; would it, Lincoln was asking, survive?

It did, of course, and then some. In the 21st century, America straddles the globe. But Americans' thinking still has a 19th century fervor to it. The official title of that big French gift to the American people that stands in New York harbor is "Liberty Enlightening the World" - and 130 years after she raised her lamp, Americans are still at it, whether the world wants enlightening or not.

Anti-American resentment comes and goes, and much of it has always been either silly or irritatingly idiotic. Right now, of course, it's at high tide, because of Iraq. A growing segment of it, unfortunately, is neither silly nor idiotic. America - or, more precisely, the Bush administration - has succeeded in turning serious world public opinion against the United States.

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush was evidently trying to invoke Lincoln's eloquent words. "Once again," he said, "we are called to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility."

Let's put it this way: America is no longer the distant beacon of good will, nor is it the democratic exception. America is the country that wields the largest military the world has ever seen, and is preparing to send it into action. All mankind is not reassured.

Does that count for anything? If American might is so overwhelming, who cares what the rest of the world thinks? Clearly, not the cranks who fill up airtime for cable television outfits, falling all over themselves with moronic-and-proud-of-it gibes at Europe and the Europeans.

But a country can only snub its allies so often before they don't amount to much as allies anymore. The West doesn't need the United States the way it once did, because the threat posed by the Soviet Union has vanished. Since Sept. 11, paradoxically, the United States has needed the West more than ever. If France and Germany and all those other no-account countries look on indifferently while America struggles alone with terrorists, America will be in a lot of trouble.

Friends can disagree. But there is something in the White House attitude that doesn't brook objections, or even elaboration. To foreign eyes, President Bush looks dangerously like a man fighting for a sacred cause - one that many millions of people want no part of. How much ill will in the world can a victory in Iraq be worth?

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