Blame the messenger

Afew weeks ago I wrote in this column about a fascinating poll conducted among six Asian-Pacific nations by a respected Australian research firm. The most troublesome message for the U.S. was that while the residents of Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand all generally like America and Americans, they do not trust our government, which they see as responsible for a duplicitous foreign policy.

This week’s flap over a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report on Iran will simply fan the flames of suspicion among these nations and others around the world. Australia’s largest television network asked, “Is George Bush the president who cried wolf? Wrong on Iraq — wrong on Iran.”

Seven’s news reporters emphasized that Bush was warned in August that a new, revised intelligence estimate on Iran’s nuclear capability was being finalized but that “he kept talking about World War III” until this week. Their conclusion was that the U.S. would have trouble getting international support for its position on Iran in the future.

That seems to be the trend of public opinion around the world. The president reportedly telephoned President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who was already skeptical of the American push to punish and isolate Iran. It is doubtful Putin was persuaded that the latest U.S. intelligence argued for his taking a tougher stance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also working the phones with other countries that have been favoring United Nations sanctions. Again, it is difficult to believe our latest intelligence makes for a stronger argument. Certainly, it gives China a reason to finally reject strong sanctions.

But back in Washington, President Bush was insisting this week that nothing had changed. “Look, Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” he said in a press conference on Tuesday. The president added, “The Iranian people must understand that the tone and actions of their government are that which is isolating them.”

It is just that sort of refusal to deal with a changing world that is hurting America’s reputation and diminishing our credibility. We went to war with Iraq over phantom WMDs. Much of the world believes that was always just a sham, that the real reason was oil or dominance of a Middle Eastern Muslim nation with strategic value, or at best that our intelligence agencies had it all wrong. Now the administration is saying our intelligence is better, we know Iran isn’t building bombs, but we still need to threaten them with a pre-emptive strike. To much of the world that is a nonsensical position. It simply sends a message that this administration doesn’t care what the facts are — it has an agenda and it is going to pursue it whether it makes sense or not.

The fallout from Bush’s position (no pun intended) is going to affect domestic as well as international politics. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has already taken flak from her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination over her “hawkish” attitude toward Iran. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has made the point that she was wrong on Iraq and wrong on Iran — much like the current occupant of the White House. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) pointed out that among the candidates only Clinton voted to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. “And this is exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted,” he said. Whether this criticism will have traction in Iowa remains to be seen. In part, it depends on just how far Clinton, Edwards, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and others push it. But one thing certain is that it adds to Clinton’s image as a hawk — not a place where most Democratic voters are right now.

Biden has focused his ire more on the president than on his rivals for the Democratic nomination. He’s said that “this administration has damaged the U.S. more than any in American history.” He believes Bush was wrong about Iraq, wrong about Iran and wrong about the Middle East in general.

He understands that many believe we are pursuing a Machiavellian foreign policy. Regardless of how the race for the Democratic nomination turns out, Biden seems to be the one who understands why the world gets the wrong message about America. It is because we have the wrong messenger saying the wrong things simply because he has decided he is right — no matter the evidence to the contrary.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com