WASHINGTON - The United States may not quite yet be perceived as the "pitiful, helpless giant" that haunted the dreams of Richard Nixon 35 years ago, but it's getting close.
Its military, still determined to achieve "full-spectrum dominance" under Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, may yet be the most powerful in the history of the world, but it still can't subdue a rag-tag, minority insurgency with no major external sources of support in a midling-sized nation in a region it has considered a "vital interest" for more than a generation.
And its wealth may be fabulous by global and world historical standards, but its increasing concentration in private hands has led to a dramatic deterioration in its public infrastructure that goes far in explaining why more than a million people were transformed into environmental refugees over the past two weeks, and at least several thousand more died from drowning, malnutrition and neglect.
Its technology may be second to none, but, in the hands of hopelessly incompetent, unaccountable and, in some cases, clearly corrupt politicians and their cronies, it can provide neither adequate supplies of electricity to 24 million Iraqis two years after taking control of Baghdad, nor adequate supplies of food, clean water, sanitation, transportation or shelter to hundreds of thousands of its own citizens within just a few days of a major natural disaster.
Indeed, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, top officials still cannot figure out the logistics of how to receive unprecedented offers of technical assistance from foreign nations, some of which, some of which, such as India and Germany, reportedly still had planes with self-contained units of emergency equipment and experienced disaster relief workers lined up on airport runways ready to fly to the Gulf region one week after New Orleans' levees were breached and 80 percent of the city found itself underwater.
"The initial shock abroad comes not from the signs of such human misery but from the fact that it occurred in the United States, which has always been quick both to help and to lecture those swept up in natural and man-made disasters in foreign lands," observed Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland.
"The feet of clay of a nation that has regularly vaunted its standing as the world's only remaining superpower have been in plain view in recent days," he wrote this week from Moscow.
Feet of mud may actually be more a more fitting metaphor, both the literal mud of New Orleans and the figurative mud of the quagmire in Iraq, where U.S. ground forces find themselves both bogged down and overstretched at the same time.
To much of the rest of the world, the "High and Mighty", the strutting pose in which the Bush administration, more than other in modern U.S. history, has swaggered since it ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan nearly four years ago, has become the "Humbled and Muddy" -- even if its top officials, such as U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, have not yet absorbed the transformation and its truly global implications.
That the emperor, like the empire, has no clothes had become increasingly clear even before Katrina blew to tatters what few threads were left. Public opinion polls had shown a steady drop in confidence in George W. Bush's handling of just about everything over the months since re-election last November.
Even prominent neo-conservatives who launched their "national greatness" mantra in the late 1990s (along with their campaign to invade Iraq) had become grumpy about Bush's failure to rally the nation behind a renewed sense of national purpose and manifest destiny.
But Katrina, according to the latest surveys taken earlier this week, has brought him down yet several more notches, leaving him with the loyalty of hard-core Republicans, and virtually no one else. Even among Republicans, Bush's ratings had fallen, according to a Pew poll, which warned that the mood of the country since the disaster had become more "depressed" than at any other time since the Sept. 11 attacks four years ago.
That Bush should receive a significant amount of the blame was not surprising given his position, after all, as president and his post-Katrina performance, particularly his late return from summer vacation, his light-hearted first visit to the disaster area last week, during which he praised Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown for doing "a helluva job", and his refusal to take even the slightest responsibility for the federal government's painfully obvious failures in dealing with the crisis.
Michael Brown, who quickly became the media's poster child for the administration's incompetence, was finally removed -- but not fired -- from directing relief operations in the region a week after Time magazine revealed that the one-time house counsel of the International Arabian Horse Association had, to put it politely, padded his resume, presumably for the sake of career advancement.
Instead of "serving as an assistant city manager with emergency services oversight" in a small Oklahoma town in the late 1970s, he was actually a student intern who, according to his former boss, was "very loyal..., always on time... (and) always had on a suit and a starched white shirt". Among other discrepancies, Brown also claimed to have been a political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma when, in reality, he was a student there.
What is clear is that Brown was named FEMA's deputy director by his college roommate, then-FEMA director Joseph Allbaugh, who secured Brown's elevation to the top spot after Allbaugh, a Bush campaign director in 2000, left government as U.S. troops invaded Iraq to create his own consulting firm for clients in the overseas disaster-relief business, including Halliburton Co., which, of course, was headed by Vice Pres. Dick Cheney in the 1990s and has received many billions of dollars in Iraq-related contracts.
After Katrina landed, Allbaugh, who declared after Bush nominated Brown to succeed him that "the president couldn't have chosen a better man to help... prepare and protect the nation", has surfaced on the Gulf (of Mexico) coast, to advise his clients, including Halliburton, which has already grabbed major post-Katrina contract to repair naval facilities in the region, and the Shaw Group, which Thursday announced it had been awarded a 100-million-dollar contract to provide housing assistance for displaced persons.
In what could only be described as an ethically "muddy" transaction, the government agency that awarded the contract was FEMA.
Nor was the Allbaugh-Brown connection an aberration. "Five to eight top (FEMA) officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks," was the lead sentence in a front-page Washington Post article Friday.
Indeed, FEMA's two other top leaders held positions in the 2000 presidential campaign and subsequently worked in the White House's Office of National Advance Operations -- the office, according to the New York Times, which decides "where the president will stand on stage and which loyal supporters will be permitted into the audiences" in his "public" appearances.
So it made all the sense in the world that dozens of out-of-state firefighters who arrived to help with rescue operations in New Orleans after Katrina hit were instead deployed by FEMA to surround the president during his visit there last week, apparently to act as stage props for the commander-in-chief -- much, perhaps, in the way that the crew of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln was used on May 1, 2003, when Bush declared the end to major hostilities in Iraq.
Such Potemkin Village-like appearances have been typical under this presidency, although, in this case, the firefighters may actually have been able to save lives had they not been diverted by FEMA which, with the support of Democratic lawmakers Thursday, just received a new appropriation of more than 50 billion dollars to deal with the crisis.
It is in this context that John Bolton is lecturing his diplomatic colleagues at the U.N. about the importance of "good governance", and the Wall Street Journal and indignant Republicans in the U.S. Senate are once again yammering about "incompetence" and "corruption" at the United Nations.
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service