- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

PARIS. — In October 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis was coming to a boil, hurling everybody then alive to the edge of thermonuclear abyss, President Kennedy dispatched former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to Europe to tell our allies what was happening and what we were doing about it.

In the Elysee Palace in Paris, Acheson offered to show the French president U-2 photographs of the Soviet missile sites. Charles de Gaulle, who was not known as an unalloyed supporter of American initiatives, waved the pictures aside. “Great nations such as yours,” he said, “would not take a serious step if there were any doubt about the evidence at all.”

This story was retold in James Chase’s 1998 biography of Acheson, which, during the 2000 presidential campaign, Gov. George W. Bush told reporters he was reading. One can only wonder what the president thinks his term in office has done to that kind of trust in the United States.

The Bush administration and its supporters call for continuing the war in Iraq — indeed for escalating it, on the grounds any alternative would mean we would “lose.”

In fact, we already have lost. That does not necessarily mean we have lost militarily in Iraq. It does mean that, looking at the bigger picture, we have lost much, much more because of Iraq than we could ever have hoped to gain in Iraq. Of course Iraq is important. The Middle East is important. But many things are important. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is now America’s largest foreign mission, and Foreign Service officers complain that events in Iraq are swallowing all the other issues facing the United States.

Is it really in our national interest to pay so much more attention to 28 million Iraqis than we do to our dealings with more than 1.3 billion Chinese, who happen to own an ever-growing mortgage on our country, or more than 1 billion Indians who are beginning to flex their new economic and political power? What about the European Union, which has just grown to 27 countries with almost a half-billion people? Who’s minding the store on these issues and umpty-ump vital national interests other than in Iraq?

And what about our declared adversaries?

Latin America shows signs of turning sharply to the left. People hostile to our interests, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, are profiting from our lack of attention to the area. Iran and North Korea feel free to thumb their noses at us and continue their merry way toward nuclear weapons.

Afghanistan appears to be going back down the Taliban rathole, this time much better financed — thanks to the opium poppy trade, which they had suppressed before we invaded but which the Karzai government we backed has allowed to reblossom. NATO has asked us for an additional brigade in Afghanistan, but thanks to the administration’s proposed “surge” in Iraq, nobody knows where we will find one additional brigade. As tied up as we are in Iraq, we cannot intimidate even little Syria.

As the so-called world’s only superpower, one of the things we have clearly lost in Iraq is the ability to threaten anybody into doing much of anything. As scary as many foreigners find President Bush, they are no longer scared of the United States. And that’s a big and growing problem.

Americans and Frenchmen frequently see things in radically different ways. At the World Economic Summit meeting in Ottawa in July 1981, French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson was asked about a running dispute with the Reagan administration. His response: “How do you argue with somebody who assures you that the sky is green and the grass is blue?”

But beyond the traditional differences in French and American worldviews, the recent past appears to have produced a sea-change in attitudes. Ten days of discussions with Frenchmen in early January — some intense, some casual; with some lawyers and some business people; a few on the left, many on the right — left a sad impression there has been a real fundamental and perhaps indelible shift in how people here look at the United States.

One French businessman well acquainted with the United States put it in terms of “American exceptionalism” — a term close to the heart of many neoconservatives. As a postwar Baby Boomer, raised in the shadow of World War II and the Marshall Plan, he said he had always believed in two kinds of nations in the world: The United States and everybody else. That idea, he said, is now dead and will never be revived.

Perhaps even more damning, another said he wondered if current U.S. leaders even know what is in their own national interest. That is how “great nations,” such as the one Gen. de Gaulle recognized, cease being great.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications.

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