The hottest places in hell is reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, remain neutral. -Dante Alighieri

The big picture

By Michael Barone

Mon Sep 26, 6:06 PM ET

It√‘ often hard to keep the big picture in focus. Television news tends to center on bombs going off in Iraq and has mostly ignored several million people voting in Afghanistan. We see footage of angry Palestinians but not much about the ongoing progress toward democracy in Egypt. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in turn have dominated the news and have made it difficult to get a sense of what is happening in the world.

A world spinning out of control: That is what the old-line broadcast networks seem to be showing us. But I see other patterns. George W. Bush has consistently asserted that one reason for removing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was to advance freedom and democracy in the Middle East. In spite of the improvised explosive devices, that seems to be happening. Lebanon's Cedar Revolution was as inspiring an example of people power as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Libya has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction. Egypt, by far the largest Arab nation, had its first contested election this month, and, as the Washington Post's David Ignatius writes from Cairo, "the power of the reform movement in the Arab world today . . . is potent because it's coming from the Arab societies themselves and not just from democracy enthusiasts in Washington." Which is evidence that Bush was right: Muslims and Arabs, like people everywhere, want liberty and self-rule. Afghanistan has just voted, and Iraq is about to vote a second time this year. Violence continues, but the more important story is that democracy and freedom are advancing.

True, the news is not positive everywhere. Iran seems determined not to give up its nuclear weapons programs, and the efforts of the British, French, and Germans have not stopped them. The good news is that the British, French, and Germans appear to recognize this. North Korea also, despite initialing a draft agreement, seems bent on building more nukes. The bright side is that China, the one country with leverage over Kim Jong Il, now seems inclined to use it. The problem here is evil regimes against which we have no real military options. The best hope for a solution is peaceful regime change, of the kind endorsed by Michael Ledeen on the right and Peter Ackerman on the left.

Polls show that most Americans think the economy is in dreadful shape, even though almost all the numbers are good: Inflation and unemployment are low, and growth is robust despite the exogenous shocks of September 11, Enron, and Katrina. After a generation of almost constant low-inflation economic growth, perhaps we Americans are only satisfied when we have bubble growth, as in the late 1990s, and are unimpressed when the American economy proves once again to be amazingly resilient. This is all the more astonishing when you consider that we are going through a time of increased competition and change, as China and India, with 37 percent of the world's population, are transforming their economies from Third World to First World. Such a large proportion of mankind moving rapidly upward: This has never happened before and will never happen again.

Superpower envy. Couple this with the facts that Japan seems to be growing again after 15 years of deflation, that East Asia and eastern Europe continue to grow robustly, and that major Latin countries like Mexico and Brazil are growing as well, and the economic picture around the world looks pretty good, despite sclerotic nongrowth in western Europe and continued poverty in Africa.

But even if things are going well, isn't America hated around the world? By the elites and chattering classes of many countries, yes, and by much of the American elite and chattering class, as well. But we are not competing in a popularity contest. In a unipolar world, the single superpower will always arouse envy and dislike. The relevant question is whether we can live safely in the world; the French may dislike us, but we can live comfortably with France. The recent Pew Trust polls showing diminishing support for Islamist terrorism in Muslim countries indicate things are moving in the right direction. The increasing interweaving of China into the international economy suggests China may not be a military threat. A world spinning out of control? No, it is more like a world moving, with some backward steps, in the direction we want.


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