After my Dec. 26 column about how fear of terrorism has affected U.S. policy, I received this e-mail from Down Under:
``I just wish to comment that from the outside, the U.S.A. has in fact gone completely mad. As you point out, the U.S.A. of pre-9/11 is almost a distant memory -- a memory of a Camelot-like society that appeared to value principles of freedom and human rights.
``I have been an observer of the U.S.A.'s fall from grace. Where once [the Americans] were the consummate global diplomats, using clever tactics and strategies to guide and manipulate the world toward their interests and goals, now they are military bullies who have failed at almost every diplomatic endeavor.
``Not only is the U.S.A. a far poorer place for the changes, so is the entire world.
Declaration of Human Rights
'I am hunkered down, bearing my own local loss of freedoms and liberties `in the name of terror.' My saddest realization is that governments have forgotten what 'freedom' means; they simply equate freedom with an absence of physical harm instead of the protection of the many rights encapsulated in the [United Nations' 1948] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. . . . I had thought that in my country and yours it had become a part of the legal framework. Yet our governments both publicly and secretly have torn it apart.''
D.R., Perth, Western Australia
It has become fashionable since 9/11 for supporters of President Bush to display a blustery swagger about how little we need care what the rest of the world thinks of us. We don't need anyone, went the refrain, and we answer to no one.
This posture struck me as shortsighted and peevish. It also was sharply incongruous with our simultaneous expectation -- almost as an unearned entitlement -- to be admired as the world's cultural and economic leader. It's as if we figured on being selfish and loved at the same time.
This mind-set hasn't been fruitful. In breathtakingly short order, the United States has squandered the legacy earned through 20th-century victories over fascism, Nazism and communism, as well global sympathy after 9/11.
Keeping their distance
Seventeen nations that were once part of the U.S.-led coalition to invade Iraq have pulled out of ground operations, or will shortly.
Political aspirants in various venues -- even our smaller mirror image, Canada -- earn points by distancing themselves from Washington. The Spanish people dumped their government, and the Italians are restless to do likewise, in part over alliances with the Bush administration. Only Germany has bucked the trend, where conservative Angela Merkel dislodged Gerhard Schroeder, a Bush antagonist.
As we lose friends, we gain enemies -- the election of an anti-U.S., anti-Israel president in Iran may have extinguished a quietly nascent progressive movement there.
In our hemisphere, leftist administrations dominate in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, and now Bolivia has elected as president an indigenous leader who proudly declared that ''the coca leaf is beating the U.S. dollar.'' This has much to do with the administration's lack of interest in helping assure that workers, the poor and the public share in the bounty of free trade. That has enabled President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, for one, to don the mantle of popular hero by dispersing the nation's oil wealth rather than allowing oil multinationals to siphon it away.
An ominous alternative
Meanwhile, on the horizon looms the huge shadow of China, which is challenging the customary Western marriage of capitalism and democracy with its ominous alternative: capitalism with dictatorship. The danger is that China's formula may prove more nimble and aggressive than Western capitalism, which is weighed down by the popular vote and shifting political environments. If Bush has a strategy to counter this -- other than beating China to Iraq's oil -- it isn't yet evident.
We are fools to pretend we have no need to partner with the world community and, where prudent, to compromise in the interest of a greater good. It is in our interest to lead, not spurn, the global campaign for human rights, human dignity and a healthy standard of living.
D.R. sounds genuinely crestfallen that both his nation and ours now seem to have no greater mission than self-interest and self-protection. America became a great nation because of its ideals. We will cease to be a great nation if we continue to neglect them.
© 2006 Miami Herald