A trip to Paris last weekend made me painfully aware of the global impact of Hurricane Katrina.
The tardy national response to the suffering and death in New Orleans shocked both those who admire and those who criticize the American superpower. It caused foreigners to ask whether America is indeed a power in decline. If it can't protect its own, how can it aspire to lead others?
The Bush administration, which seems to believe its own spin, may not recognize the damage done to America's image. It should be paying attention. Unless reversed, the foreign perception of American incompetence will further erode America's influence and interests abroad.
The question I was asked repeatedly at a conference in Paris was: "How could this happen in the world's most powerful country?" At informal discussions at this gathering of Mideast specialists, I found most attendees believed the New Orleans debacle would contribute to a hasty exit of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Granted, the attendees were mostly French, and France opposed the Iraq war. Yet it's clear this French perception of U.S. weakness is shared in the Middle East - where it's bound to embolden Iraqi insurgents. In the Arab world, the chaos in New Orleans was seen as a counterimage of the chaos in Baghdad.
"Despite its military and economic potential, which it is quick to deploy abroad," wrote the French daily Le Monde on Monday, "the hyperpower is incapable of dealing with an internal catastrophe of this dimension. Is it reasonable to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fight in Iraq when America is incapable of protecting its own citizens?"
The French, like the Arab world, don't realize that the United States has the financial resources not only to stay in Iraq until it stabilizes but also to rebuild the Gulf Coast. But to have access to those resources, President Bush would need to rescind the tax cuts for the rich that have shrunk his monetary options. Such a dramatic gesture might persuade the world that the President means what he says.
That gesture, however, is unlikely. Tax cuts appear to be more sacred to the White House than New Orleans or Iraq.
What's equally depressing is the impact that the mishandling of Katrina had on foreigners who admire the United States and want to see it succeed. Consider the pained reaction of Natalya Gevorkyan, a distinguished Russian journalist attending the conference. She said that the scenes of suffering from New Orleans were "a shock for everybody. You think if something like that can happen in the most developed country, you must feel fear."
Gevorkyan believes the contrast between the Bush administration's policy of promoting democracy - and its failure to help its own people - will erode the reputation of democracy as a system.
"Bush looked like [Vladimir] Putin at Beslan," she said. Beslan is the town where the Russian leader botched efforts to free more than a thousand hostages from Chechen terrorists a year ago. More than 300 were killed, half of them children. "Like Putin, nothing was done right, and no one was punished."
That disillusionment with America's leadership is reflected in newspaper interviews in Asian countries hit by last year's tsunami. In one typical response, a Filipino government official named Paulynn Sicam told the New York Times: "It's so heartbreaking to see how helpless America has become. You're not strong anymore. You can't even save your own countrymen and there you are out there trying to control the world."
Such a damning reaction from America's friends should be a warning to the White House.
The United States has always led by example, not simply by military force. Other nations and individuals have sought to emulate America because they admired its democratic values.
If people abroad see our leaders failing to help poor blacks or unable to cope with domestic crises, our model of government becomes less appealing. It no longer stands as a global example for emulation. Nationalism or fundamentalism, or even Chinese authoritarianism become more attractive alternatives to the world's younger generation.
It shouldn't be that way. America is still capable of doing great things, including the rebuilding of New Orleans. But George Bush needs to jolt the world, and Americans, into believing our country is still what it used to be. Rescinding those tax cuts would be a convincing start.
© 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer