A Hole in the Heart

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

October 28, 2004

When you read polls showing a significant number of Americans feel our country is on the wrong track, what do you think is bothering people? I think it's a deep worry that there is a hole in the heart of the world - the moderate center seems to be getting torn asunder. That has many people worried. And they are right to be worried.

American politics is so polarized today that there is no center, only sides. Israeli politics has become divided nearly to the point of civil war. In the Arab-Muslim world, where the moderate center was always a fragile flower, the political moderates are on the defensive everywhere, and moderate Muslim spiritual leaders seem almost nonexistent.

Europe, for its part, has gone so crazy over the Bush administration that the normally thoughtful Guardian newspaper completely lost its mind last week and published a column that openly hoped for the assassination of President Bush, saying: "John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. - where are you now that we need you?" (The writer apologized later.) Meanwhile, French and German leaders seem to be competing over who can say more categorically that they will never send troops to help out in Iraq - even though the help needed now is to organize the first U.N.-supervised democratic election in that country.

How do we begin to repair this jagged hole? There is no cure-all, but three big things would help. One is a different U.S. approach to the world. The Bush-Cheney team bears a big responsibility for this hole because it nakedly exploited 9/11 to push a far-right Republican agenda, domestically and globally, for which it had no mandate. When U.S. policy makes such a profound lurch to the right, when we start exporting fear instead of hope, the whole center of gravity of the world is affected. Countries reposition themselves in relation to us.

Had the administration been more competent in pursuing its policies in Iraq - which can still turn out decently - the hole in the heart of the world might not have gotten so large and jagged.

I have been struck by how many foreign dignitaries have begged me lately for news that Bush will lose. This Bush team has made itself so radioactive it glows in the dark. When the world liked Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, America had more power in the world. When much of the world detests George Bush, America has less power. People do not want to be seen standing next to us. It doesn't mean we should run our foreign policy as a popularity contest, but it does mean that leading is not just about making decisions - it's also the ability to communicate, follow through and persuade.

If the Bush team wins re-election, unless it undergoes a policy lobotomy and changes course and tone, the breach between America and the rest of the world will only get larger. But all Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney have told us during this campaign is that they have made no mistakes and see no reason to change.

The second thing that is necessary to heal the hole in the world is a decent Iraqi election. If such an election can be brought off, the Europeans, the Arabs and the American left will have to rethink their positions. I know what I am for in Iraq: a real election and a decent government. The Europeans, the Arabs and the American left know what they are against in Iraq: George Bush and his policies. But if there is an elected Iraqi government, it could be the magnet to begin pulling the moderate center of the world back together, because a duly elected Iraqi government is something everyone should want to help.

The real question is, What if we get a new Iraqi government but the same old Bush team incompetence? That would be a problem. Even an elected Iraqi government will see its legitimacy wane if we cannot help it provide basic security and jobs.

Last, we need to hope that Ariel Sharon's hugely important effort to withdraw Israel from Gaza will pave the way for a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. When there is no peace in the Holy Land, and when America has no diplomacy going on there, the world is always more polarized.

I am no Sharon fan, but I am impressed. Mr. Sharon's willingness to look his own ideology and his own political base in the eye, conclude that pandering to both of them is no longer in his country's national interest, and then risk his life and political career to change course is an example of leadership you just don't see much of any more in democracies.

I wonder what Karl Rove thinks of it?