"As a result of the American military," President Bush declared last week, "the Taliban is no longer in existence."
It's unclear whether Mr. Bush misspoke, or whether he really is that clueless. But his claim was in keeping with his re-election strategy, demonstrated once again in last night's debate: a president who has done immense damage to America's position in the world hopes to brazen it out by claiming that failure is success.
Three years ago, the United States was both feared and respected: feared because of its military supremacy, respected because of its traditional commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
Since then, Iraq has demonstrated the limits of American military power, and has tied up much of that power in a grinding guerrilla war. This has emboldened regimes that pose a real threat. Three years ago, would North Korea have felt so free to trumpet its conversion of fuel rods into bombs?
But even more important is the loss of respect. After the official rationales for the Iraq war proved false, and after America failed to make good on its promise to foster democracy in either Afghanistan or Iraq - and, not least, after Abu Ghraib - the world no longer believes that we are the good guys.
Let's talk for a minute about Afghanistan, which administration officials tout as a success story. They rely on the public's ignorance: voters, they believe, don't know that even though the United States promised to provide Afghanistan with both security and aid during its transition to democracy, it broke those promises. It has allowed the country to slide back into warlordism - and allowed the Taliban to make a comeback.
These days, Mr. Bush and other administration officials often talk about the 10.5 million Afghans who have registered to vote in this month's election, citing the figure as proof that democracy is making strides after all. They count on the public not to know, and on reporters not to mention, that the number of people registered considerably exceeds all estimates of the eligible population. What they call evidence of democracy on the march is actually evidence of large-scale electoral fraud.
It's the same story in Iraq: the January election has become the rationale for everything we're doing, yet it's hard to find anyone not beholden to the administration who believes that the election, if it happens at all, will be anything more than a sham.
Yet Mr. Bush and his Congressional allies seem to have learned nothing from their failures. If Mr. Bush is returned to office, there's every reason to think that they will continue along the same disastrous path.
We can already see one example of this when we look at the question of torture. Abu Ghraib has largely vanished from U.S. political discussion, largely because the administration and its Congressional allies have been so effective at covering up high-level involvement. But both the revelations and the cover-up did terrible damage to America's moral authority. To much of the world, America looks like a place where top officials condone and possibly order the torture of innocent people, and suffer no consequences.
What we need is an effort to regain our good name. What we're getting instead is a provision, inserted by Congressional Republicans in the intelligence reform bill, to legalize "extraordinary rendition" - a euphemism for sending terrorism suspects to countries that use torture for interrogation. This would institutionalize a Kafkaesque system under which suspects can be sent, at the government's whim, to Egypt or Syria or Jordan - and to fight such a move, it's up to the suspect to prove that he'll be tortured on arrival. Just what we need to convince other countries of our commitment to the rule of law.
Most Americans aren't aware of all this. The sheer scale of Mr. Bush's foreign policy failures insulates him from its political consequences: voters aren't ready to believe how badly the war in Iraq is going, let alone how badly America's moral position in the world has deteriorated.
But the rest of the world has already lost faith in us. In fact, let me make a prediction: if Mr. Bush gets a second term, we will soon have no democracies left among our allies - no, not even Tony Blair's Britain. Mr. Bush will be left with the support of regimes that don't worry about the legalities - regimes like Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Originally published in The New York Times, 10.1.04