Observing the U.S. as a German I will even as a member of the after World War II generation always remember how the USA helped to re-establish Germany (at least the Western part of it). The Marshall plan comes to ones mind as well as the airlift to the airport Berlin Tempelhof that Berlin now finally manages to close in spite of all its historic meaning. These things among others contributed to the myth of a country that can fix problems and will always play a leadership role in the world.
After two months of travelling providing for me the opportunity to talk to a lot of Americans and to learn what they think of their own country I have realized: It might not even be the image of the USA which suffered most by the Bush administration as well as a sometimes awkward, sometimes rule breaking public diplomacy. It’s the self perception of the American people that was disarranged and shattered in many ways.
That is reflected in the polls. PEW Research Center reports that the approval rate for the federal government gets a decade low of 37 percent. Concurrently President Bush’s approval rating reaches an all-time low of 27 percent and only 22 percent of the population are satisfied with how the things are going in the country. Translation: Two third of the American people think that their country is on the wrong track. Wow!
There might be three major reasons for that I have learned about in the plenty of conversations I had for the last two months.
The Iraq war. With a death toll of more than 4.000 people and no end in sight most Americans have understood that something went wrong out there. Listening to Hillary Clinton promising that she will bring the troops back in six weeks after having taken presidency a lot of listeners just raise their eyebrows. There is no exit plan. And secretly everybody knows: there won’t be one at short sight. This war has scattered a big portion of optimism of the American people and it has ruined a big part of the ideal of freedom and democracy that has always been linked to the U.S. Because the Bush administration violated constitutional rights in a variety of ways and issued rules that allowed a treatment of a person – be it a suspect, a prisoner or a terrorist – that amounts to torture by pretty much any definition except the Bush administration’s.
The economic decline. A lot of people are hit by the mortgage crisis and have left their homes because they are simply no longer able to pay the rates. And economy doesn’t seem to catch up soon. The Dollar has lost its position as lead currency and the necessary infrastructure investments are postponed. After a visit to Europe and Asia these weeks the author Thomas Friedman describes his observations in an article for The New York Times: “If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.”
One of the most extensive shocks was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Why is that? Because the other drivers of decay in self -confidence are either related to foreign, i.e. exterior politics or to influencing factors that are not just or not directly combined with the creative power of the U.S. themselves. Katrina and its aftermath were.
The victims of the Hurricane and the floods could have been saved. But they weren’t. The people from New Orleans could have been helped. But they weren’t. Instead people were kept in the Superdome for almost five days without food and water, not knowing what would happen to them. New Orleans could have been rebuilt and the displaced people brought back to their homes. But that didn’t happen. The Federal Government screwed the whole crisis management up in an unbelievable way. That’s what can be heard today very often. The people in New Orleans speak up telling it, others don’t. Why not?
This disaster – man made not a natural one – holds up a mirror every day that shows a reflection of the U.S. a lot of people don’t want to see. They don’t want to cope with the cognition that it were their country’s own people that were left on their own. They don’t want to face the fact that Katrina not only wiped out New Orleans but also the myth of the ‘can do’ country. America could fix it. That was held true for a long time. Iraq did quite a damage to this image. But it’s different to fail in a country far away than to fail in the midst of one’s own country.