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POSITION PAPERS FOR THE NEXT PRESIDENT

A force for good again

This is the last editorial in a weeklong series on the issues and challenges facing the next president. The full series is available at latimes.com/positionpapers.

October 18, 2008

Even among those who disagree on every other aspect of this election -- from those who find Barack Obama dangerously inexperienced to those who see John McCain as frighteningly irresponsible, from those who can't stand Joe Biden's grin to those who can't abide Sarah Palin's wink -- there is a common hope. Partisans of all types can realistically imagine that the next administration will improve this nation's standing in the world, if only because the last eight years have seen it decline to a degree unknown in modern times. From the bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.

By any measure, the Bush administration has plumbed new depths to discover how badly the United States can be regarded on the international stage. It has ignored the United Nations, laughed off climate change and allowed anti-Americanism in Latin America to deepen and spread. It invaded Afghanistan for good reason, then allowed that conflict to spiral downward. It invaded Iraq under false pretenses and succeeded in antagonizing the Muslim world and clear-thinking people of all faiths.

Its chief mistake, however, has been its abdication of American values in the misguided attempt to project American power. Today, this nation possesses more military might than has ever been assembled under any flag, but Osama bin Laden wanders free, testament to the limits of force. That is a bitter reminder of what we all know intuitively: This country's true strength is not its force of arms but its ability to inspire and to lead.

The United States emerged as the world's dominant power after World War II, the victor in the Cold War, because it exemplified mindful freedom, liberty tempered by the Constitution. Here, the majority elected presidents (usually), while a shared commitment to civil rights protected the minority -- we integrated schools, expanded the franchise, empowered the poor. Those actions did not go unnoticed by the world. First allies, then skeptics turned away from communism, toward freedom and human rights, toward America.

Under George W. Bush, we have abandoned those values in pursuit of strong-armed advantage. Candidate Bush promised a humble foreign policy. President Bush brought us the Bush doctrine, the self-appointed right of the United States to preemptively invade nations that pose a threat to its interests. Candidate Bush presented himself as a compassionate conservative. President Bush built the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Candidate Bush scorned nation building. President Bush has occupied Iraq for almost six years.

Those travesties and deceptions have taken their toll. By early 2007, the BBC reported that confidence in the United States was sharply on the wane. Just 29% of those polled in 18 countries viewed the U.S. mainly as a force for good in the world. Clear majorities disapproved of U.S. policy toward Israel, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, as well as the prison at Guantanamo and the administration's stance on global warming. This year, with a presidential election underway and Bush headed for the exits, the world's impression of the United States, as measured by such surveys, crept up a bit, but it remains dispiriting to consider that fewer than a third of those polled see this nation as more good than bad.

The United States has suffered in world opinion before. We well remember the protests in Europe over Ronald Reagan's proposed deployment of a neutron bomb and European demands for a nuclear freeze. And few can forget the anguish caused by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

But today's difficulties are deeper, more complex. And it falls to two very different men to chart the way out. Thankfully, we have every confidence that either of the candidates will improve our nation's standing. As noted earlier in this series, both McCain and Obama favor closing Guantanamo, a prerequisite to the restoration of America's international reputation. Beyond that, the two diverge, offering profoundly different world views -- McCain espousing a commitment to American might and Obama relying on the power of negotiation as well as the humility of strength.

Each candidate has, on the long road to election day, slipped up. Obama's willingness to pursue Al Qaeda in Pakistan, even in violation of that nation's sovereignty, sounds suspiciously like preemptive action; his enthusiasm for negotiation with leaders of deplorable regimes is promising, though also perilous. There is the risk of legitimizing lunatics by allowing them to share a stage with an American president. McCain, meanwhile, seems to savor his own belligerence -- he has joked about bombing Iran and mused that he's willing to stay in Iraq for 100 years. Those are hardly the sentiments of a man determined to reclaim America's moral authority.

Ultimately, the reputation of the United States abroad depends only partly on its foreign policy. Its restoration also will require a recommitment to ordered liberty, to the return of balance to our institutions. The next president must not only end our foreign misadventures but aver the power that Bush has amassed to wage them. A strong America, one worthy of respect at home and abroad, is one that grants those in its custody their rights, that declines to spy on citizens without warrants. It requires a president willing to share power with Congress and the courts and to subject himself to public scrutiny and accountability. Fervently we ask that the next administration lead us back to a position of honor in the world.

On The Times' Opinion website today and on the editorial page in Sunday's newspaper, we present our endorsement for president of the United States.

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