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PERSPECTIVE ON AMERICA'S IMAGE : Sssssh! The World Is Listening : Our public wrangling about lousy government and lame policies is free speech with a heavy cost in how others size us up.

October 16, 1994|P. EDWARD HALEY | P. Edward Haley is senior research associate at the Keck Center for International Strategic Studies, Claremont McKenna College. He is working on a book, "Overtaken by Events: George Bush and the World, 1989-1993."

Some years ago, a media survey asked Israelis how they interpreted the sexy, lavish soap opera, "Dallas." Their responses varied most significantly according to where they were from and how long they had been in Israel. Recent immigrants from outside Western Europe believed that the show described the life of ordinary Americans. Only those who had lived in Israel for some time or who had immigrated from the West recognized that the constant violence and infidelities might be something other than a documentary, perhaps romantic fiction or even metaphor.

During the past two years, American politics have been "Dallased" for the rest of the world. Foreigners are taking what they see and hear literally. When Americans say their government is hopelessly gridlocked and run by moral pygmies and idiots, foreigners believe us. We should know. Shouldn't we?

Americans know better, but for a number of reasons choose to conduct their public debate in apocalyptic and increasingly nasty terms. The result misleads our enemies, and that is dangerous. Such a government, they conclude, couldn't possibly act forcefully in Haiti (or Kuwait, or North Korea). They are wrong. But they are tempted.

Most dangerous of all, Americans may have begun to misunderstand their own political rhetoric.

Three reasons peculiar to the nature of democracy in America explain why foreigners have so much difficulty understanding our public debate: the aquifer problem, the immanent history problem and the policy laboratory problem.

Foreigners aren't used to hearing every problem presented in its most threatening form. Example: American environmentalists, knowing how hard it is to win remedial action through many layers of government, are tempted to present the least evidence of pollution in a few lakes in a handful of northern states as well-advanced, terminal and irreversible contamination of the aquifers of the entire North American continent, with spillover into the polar icecap and grave implications for global warming. Their opponents show no more restraint. They answer: There is not a trace of evidence that pollution has occurred, and if it had, it would not be dangerous and could best be handled by private enterprise.

Americans speak as if they believe that history occurs to act out their personal principles. Any deviations must be the work of traitors, or those familiar pygmies and idiots. Judging from their public speech, Americans make no allowance for the tyranny of circumstances, for the legitimate and conflicting needs and desires of others, or for accidents.

Americans of all political views also argue about the most enduring and upsetting human problems as if they were white-coated technicians cooking up tasty little pellets--incentives or penalties--for a menagerie of laboratory rats. This is, after all, the country that invented the term public administration, as if good management by "policy wonks" could be substituted for politics, with its clashing ambitions and ideals, its sinfulness, loss and occasional wisdom.

Freed from the discipline of the Cold War, Americans have begun to conduct their domestic political debate as if no one else were listening. During the past year, the Republican Party brought Congress to a halt and staked its mid-term election hopes on a policy of calculated obstructionism. "Wear the (obstructionist) label as a badge of honor," one conservative spinmaster advised. During the same period, Democratic candidates have done all they can to distance themselves from their activist President. Candidates from both parties routinely run against Washington, as if it were not part of the country and themselves.

Foreigners can be forgiven if they take it all literally: the exaggerations, the accusations of betrayal and criminality, the charges of stupidity and corruption. Given the current level of what passes for debate, it's small wonder that they see domestic weakness and irresolution instead of the clumsy working of the separation of powers in a huge country without strong political parties. If the United States were the country described in its own public debate, we would not be assisting Haiti, defending Kuwait, winning a nuclear stand-down in Korea and brokering peace in the Middle East.

Foreign governments usually base their actions on their assessment of costs and benefits. It would be tragic if by losing ourselves in our vehemence and folly at home, Americans encouraged aggressors and dictators to believe they can flout international law and ignore American power.

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