U.S. foes have nothing to offer

September 26, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Jon Stewart of The Daily Show could not have concocted a more outrageous routine than last week's speech by Hugo Chavez at the United Nations. The Venezuelan president's tirade against President Bush, calling Mr. Bush "the devil" and sniffing the air for the smell of sulfur, was over the top. It was so offensive that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called Mr. Chavez a "thug" and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, told Mr. Chavez not to condemn "my president" in his district.

So why did Mr. Chavez's speech draw laughs and applause? Why did he feel so free to denounce the U.S., as did the defiant presidents of Iran and Sudan?

The answer goes beyond the anger of many world leaders at Mr. Bush's policies, his rhetorical style and his policy of regime change. It goes beyond resentment of America's global dominance or U.S. policies in the Middle East.

I think the U.N. sideshow revealed how much leaders such as Mr. Chavez, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir have been emboldened by America's troubles in Iraq. Those troubles convey the growing sense among America's adversaries that the world's sole superpower is on the ropes.

"The reason [for the defiance at the U.N.] was one-third Bush and two-thirds Iraq," said Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Things would be different if we were winning in Iraq."

What was most disturbing about the U.N. drama is the picture it painted of a world order in which American leadership has faltered. Whatever one's criticisms of Mr. Bush, his three defamers at the United Nations presented no desirable alternative to U.S. dominance. The modes of government they represent spell disaster for those who follow them: theocracy for Iran, populist authoritarianism for Venezuela, and ethnic genocide for Sudan.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's demands for a world "free from decadence, aggression and injustice" failed to address the lack of justice in his homeland. He rejected questions, at his numerous media appearances, about repression of dissent and of women, and torture in Iranian prisons. And he wholly rebuffed the valid reasons for international doubts about the purpose of Iran's nuclear program. Moreover, at every stop, he reiterated his denial of the Holocaust and his insistence on the illegitimacy of Israel.

Mr. Chavez, meanwhile, is floating on a cushion of high-priced oil that has allowed him to dispense money to the underclass in typical Latin populist fashion. But he is undermining Venezuelan democracy by intimidating the media, undercutting the courts and militarizing the government. Should oil prices fall, he would lose his means of enticing the poor and intervening in the politics of other Latin countries.

As for Mr. al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader felt perfectly free to let the world know he would continue with genocide. To be more specific, he continued to refuse to let a U.N. force into Darfur. Such a force has been strongly backed by President Bush and endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution. To add insult to murder, Mr. al-Bashir claimed in a news conference that the reports of deaths in Darfur were "fictions" spread by Jewish organizations to raise money to benefit Israel.

Each of these three leaders displays an overconfidence that ignores deep problems in his homeland. None is in a position to lead the opposition to America's global role.

Yet their performance at the United Nations signaled the danger of a world without any strong and clear leaders. Moreover, their denunciations of the United Nations as a U.S. tool envision a world body that would be even more problematic than at present. If all three had their way, the U.N. Security Council would be packed with Islamists and populists with a veto.

The United States is still far more powerful than these three admit, and the Iraq war's outcome is not yet known. This U.N. session should serve as a warning both to the Bush administration and to those who cheered Mr. Chavez.

The U.S. leadership has made huge mistakes - and needs to rethink the way it acts abroad - but consider the options. If these three represent the alternative to strong American leadership, the future looks pretty grim.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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