Washington's Big Fat Greek Pride

By MAUREEN DOWD

The New York Times

August 19, 2004

The White House has become the palace of paradox.

The war that was supposed to let us swagger and strut in the world is impeding our swagger and strut in the world.

As Selena Roberts wrote in her "Sports of the Times" column on Tuesday, American athletes in Athens are trying so hard to curb their usual chesty, preening, flag-waving behavior, in accordance with the U.S. Olympic Committee's fears about security in an anti-American climate, that it may be dulling the American team's edge.

"It does not reflect well on American culture, but some United States athletes need to pound their chests to get their hearts racing," Ms. Roberts writes. "Some need to scowl, stare and pump music into their heads to accompany their defiant strut before the start gun. Somehow, intimidating others is motivating to them."

Of the street-tough, hip-hop bad boy Allen Iverson's becoming a model of lackluster conformity in Athens, she wondered, "Who body-snatched this man?"

Even our warlike national anthem has been transformed, from blaring horns to peaceful, soothing strings.

The basketball thing is a disaster. If there's one sport we were always dominant in, it was basketball. Basketball was invented in this country. And now we're losing to Puerto Rico and struggling against Greece, while thousands of gratified Europeans in the stands jeer U.S. stumbles.

Puerto Rico beat us? It's as if the Jamaican bobsled team beat the Austrians.

It was impossible to believe before this week that if you had Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Carmelo Anthony, with LeBron James coming in from the bench, that we couldn't beat any five guys in the world. Yet we were trounced by one of our own, a U.S. commonwealth. And the Greek national basketball team, which didn't even qualify for the Olympics and got in only because Greece is the host country, nearly beat us, as the rancorous crowd booed whenever the Americans got the ball.

The world cannot get enough of our big, cocky sports millionaires on the losing side.

Just as President Clinton entwined himself with the Olympics in Atlanta during his re-election campaign, President Bush has attempted to latch onto the Greek Olympics, running an ad in which the flags of Afghanistan and Iraq are shown as a narrator boasts that at "this Olympics, there will be two more free nations, and two fewer terrorist regimes." (Not to mention more terrorist acts in the world.)

But if the Olympics aren't working as a P.R. tool for the country, how can they work as a P.R. tool for the president?

"The Americans are groping for an identity," Ms. Roberts muses. "Who are they without their trademark 'tude?"

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld thought they could change the American identity by invading Iraq, that they could toughen up our 'tude and remove the lingering post-Vietnam skittishness about force and the "blame America first" psychology.

They thought our shock-and-awe war would change America's image, adding some muscularity that would make Arab foes cower and the world bow down to the U.S. as an unassailable hyperpower.

The vice president and the defense chief have changed our identity and image in the world - but not in the way they envisioned.

Our athletes are swaggering less and trying to be more sensitive to other athletes.

Iraq is making us wring our hands over whether to blast our way into Najaf and Falluja, quavering with uncharacteristic sensitivity even as the White House fires verbal mortars at the domestic enemy, John Kerry, for suggesting that we be more sensitive.

The presidential race seems frozen in some weird way, with no one breaking through, and the polls showing the candidates locked in a virtual tie.

George W. Bush can't defend the mess he's made in Iraq, and John Kerry can't effectively attack Mr. Bush on Iraq. He has fallen into the president's trap and foolishly agreed that he would have given Mr. Bush the authority for the war even if he had known there were no W.M.D. and no security threats to the U.S.

Barack Obama was wrong that "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America." There is a liberal and a conservative America, and Mr. Bush is happy to govern only one of them.

The new Pew Research Center poll finds the country ever more divided. "The public takes a paradoxical view of America's place in the world," the poll reports, with 45 percent of Americans saying the U.S. plays a more important and powerful role as world leader than it did 10 years ago, and 67 percent saying the U.S. is less respected.

The president who promised a humble foreign policy ended up with a foreign policy inflated by hubris - which is, after all, a Greek idea.