French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner says, in reference to America's image, "the magic is over."
I'm not certain what magical image America had prior to the Iraq war, except for the image of the poor victim for a couple of weeks following the World Trade Center. Would Europe prefer that the United States had taken a different path following the attack? Most believe so.
I ask a specific question. Would the world be better off with Saddam Hussein and the Taliban still in power? Is there a belief that diplomacy would have cured the ills in those areas? If diplomacy removed the Taliban or Saddam, it truly would have been "magical." Just look at the success of diplomatic efforts in North Korea. I am not proposing that this war was run in the correct way, only that any efforts less than war would not have been effective at getting the same result.
As it happens, the fighting in Iraq is giving the world the results of an interesting experiment. The experiment wasn't intentional, but it exists nonetheless. Can a nation that is attempting to run a "moral" war, win that war? Can civilian casualties truly be minimized? Obviously, trying to run a "moral" war has been much less effective than the traditional manner. That doesn't mean it's not worth trying.
Let's ask a different question.
Does the image of America matter? Not the actions, but the image. If the United Nations gives any clue, those nations with the worst reputations and records get to rule on human rights. Apparently, the more awful one is in the world, the better one fares in the UN. Why should that be?
One possibility is the US is a horrible juggernaut that trounces over the people of other nations and all they can do is beg for mercy. If that's true, it has been the single most ineffective use of power by any nation in history. I mean, what if we really tried to do what we are accused of doing? I can't imagine a less effective way to do it. I think there is a much more accurate answer.
In the immortal words of Lord Palmerston, "We have no permanent allies, only permanent interests ." Nations do not follow or agree with other nations because they are pleasant, only because they have something they need. This is why the world pays more attention to 500 deaths in the Middle East than 50,000 in Rwanda. It's not a kind world. If the US wants to be popular, it can always give away money, land, and sovereignty to other nations and it's popularity will skyrocket. It is always easier to avoid fighting a difficult fight than standing up for one's principles. The world is annoyed with the US because it was willing to stir up the hornet's nest of the Middle East while Europe was willing to quietly turn it's back on the situation there.
If we must err, let's err on the side that is least likely to harm freedom in the world. When the United States becomes isolationist and allows Europe and Asia to control their own affairs, it inevitably ends up in a World War as the most aggressive power comes to control (historically this has been Germany). When the US is active, the USSR falls, South Korea maintains itself, or the US ends up with a bloody nose like in Vietnam. Choosing between these two historic options is not difficult. Take a messy war like the one in Afghanistan any day over a World War with a real power. Fortunately, success in foreign policy is not a popularity contest. I fear Machiavelli had it right when he said it was better to be feared than love. May the US be the most just and least popular ruler the world has ever seen.