"Cry Wolf(owitz) and let loose the dogs of war…"

OK, my editor thinks my lead is too ambiguous for most of you. I really don’t know, but I do know American officials, particularly our president, have been traveling overseas lately. And their experience is telling us a lot about some of the less obvious consequences of our foreign policy since 9/11.

First, a little context. The aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon saw a dramatic increase in public sympathy for the United States. This resulted in increased support for the U.S. generally, and in real commitments and contributions to the American led war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, principally in Afghanistan. American prestige was high and American diplomats traveled the globe, basking in the public prestige and praise that was our due.

Then the United States abruptly shifted its international course, nearly abandoning the war on terror and focusing instead on Iraq, an available but not nearly so justifiable a target. Embracing the notions of unilateralism and preemptive war, the United States went to war with Iraq in spite of the objections of our closest allies. It is now nearly eight months since the fall of the Iraqi regime in Baghdad and we are beginning to see the consequences of that adventure: continued American and coalition losses to Iraqi resistance, more Iraqi civilians dying in the crossfire, the escalating costs of a long term occupation, and plummeting U.S. prestige abroad. Our policies have managed in record time to reverse that enviable rise in prestige and turn our former allies into, at best, mistrustful associates wary of our next move.

Nowhere has this change been demonstrated more dramatically than the conditions under which our leaders now travel abroad. Let me provide a few examples, and in the process explain my lead sentence, "Cry Wolf…etc."

About a month ago, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ventured to Baghdad. Unlike those Senators and Representatives preceding him, he declined to be housed in Qatar, Kuwait or Bahrain, and instead billeted himself in the venerable Al Rashid hotel, the highly protected center of the U.S. provisional administration of Iraq. During his visit, the hotel was shelled with rockets from nearby locations, injuring many residents in the facility, and killing at least one American official. All media reported that Deputy Sec. Wolfowitz was "visibly shaken" from the experience. Now this is not something that any of us would wish upon another human being, at least not us ordinary guys and at least not us ordinary guys. But Paul Wolfowitz has made his career advocating just such experiences (and worse) for millions of people around the world, advocating such actions in support of a new American dominated world order. The irony is apparent.

But Paul Wolfowitz is not the only American official traveling around the world to less than positive receptions. Let us also review the experience of President Bush as he travels to key allies and Baghdad itself, this Thanksgiving.

Lets start with President Bush’s tour of our Asian allies last month, a trip that took him to (at least) Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia. All of these states are essentially pro-American, at least as far as their governments are concerned. Their mass publics may be another story.

Japan was by all accounts a quiet, short (about 15 hours) visit, although P.M. Koizumo’s popularity subsequently waned and the Japanese have reconsidered much of their military and financial support for the war against Iraq. The president left Japan without visible embarassment or controversy.

The same cannot be said of the other countries on the tour. Security in Thailand was extremely tight and public opinion vocal in its disapproval of U.S. policy. The president’s day (three hour visit) in Indonesia, on the resort islands of Bali, looked like an American invasion, with U.S. warplanes patrolling the skies, U.S. naval vessels monitoring the seas, and U.S. helicopters buzzing incessantly around the meeting site. The visit to Indonesia took only a few hours and was devoid of the symbolic rituals and ceremonies usually contingent on the visit of a head of state to a loyal ally.

Things were even less comfortable for the president in the Philippines, not only a steadfast anti-terrorist ally of the U.S., but also one of our former colonial possessions. President Bush took the opportunity, during his eight hour state visit, to present the Philippine experience as a kind of model for what we are doing in Iraq, apparently blissfully unaware of the twenty years it took to "pacify" the Philippines, and the frightful toll of lives of both Americans and Filipinos in the process. Security was very tight, and this was yet another country where food tasters were employed to protect against the intentional poisoning of the president and his retinue. The streets were filled with anti-American protestors.

A similar fate befell the president in Australia. During an address to the Australian parliament, Australian members of parliament heckled the president. Street demonstrations were again a common feature of the visit, and this in a country that has contributed troops to both ventures, Afghan and Iraqi. The president lingered for less than 20 hours in this bastion of anglo-american culture. If these are our friends and allies, I’d hate to see our enemies.

Needless to say, the tour was not a public relations success story. So in search of friendlier precincts, the president and his retinue journeyed to Britain, our closest ally, dearest friend, and the other end of a "special relationship" that eclipses all other international relationships. And even here, the public welcome for our president was not warm.

The president was welcomed to Great Britain in a ceremony that was only a pale shadow of the ritual spectacles that the English are so fond of. The president was not welcomed by the Queen as he arrived in Britain, but only later in a more sedate social setting. The president was not invited to address the British parliament, the mother of all legislatures, but was instead asked to speak to a safe captive audience in an ancient guildhall, and was thus spared the kind of "welcome" that British Members of Parliament are well noted for providing. The welcome in the streets was hotter, as hundreds of thousands of British protestors swarmed the public venues of London, all of them protesting the U.S. led war in Iraq and demanding "regime change" in London and Washington.

Now all of these unfriendly or potentially dangerous receptions occurred in countries that are ostensibly our closest and most faithful allies. These mobs of anti-American protestors were not in "darkest" France, or the other capitals of the "old" Europe, they were in the countries where the governments had strongly backed our play in Iraq. By and large, these are the countries in which America is the most highly regarded, where the public is generally sympathetic to our politics and our way of life. Just think what it would have been like for the president to visit a country not naturally allied with us. How would the president have visited such a country?

We got our answer on Thanksgiving, when President Bush visited our troops in Baghdad and served turkey and dressing to them in a mess tent. The event, as you all know, was top secret. The few reporters that were allowed to travel with the president couldn’t even tell their families when and where they were going. The flight was electronically blacked out, and was almost cancelled when Air Force One was spotted by a commercial flight over the Atlantic. The landing in Baghdad was at night with the lights out, the whole visit took less than three hours and the president was "wheels up" and back in the air before the public, here or in Iraq, was any the wiser.

One can’t help but wonder what sort of reception the Iraqi public would have given the president had he ventured out of the military barracks he visited. Would he have taken the opportunity to see for himself the effects of our invasion and occupation? Would he and Paul Bremer have toured those "success stories" that our media so flagrantly fail to report? Would he have addressed the Iraqi Council we have so carefully constructed and counseled? Would he have found an Iraqi baby to kiss? Alas we shall never know, as the demands of security and prudence eliminated these possibilities. There was time for the obligatory photos of the president hefting a turkey and glad-handing the carefully picked cadre of soldiers.

We should have some sympathy for the president and his advisors as they travel in regal isolation around the world. It isn’t easy to find a smiling face in all those crowds, not easy to find a head of state or government anxious to support the next round of preemptive defensive attacks. Maybe a trip to Turkey…

And oh yes, "Cry Wolf…" I was, I thought, trying to make a play on the words "Cry Havoc and Release the Hounds of War." Lyrics from Rapid Fire by Bredband.