A Tale of Two Fables

Fable 1: The world is blessed with an advanced civilization renowned for its dynamism and freedom. Most of the world's peoples admire and emulate it. But this civilization fails to notice a primitive, evil force that emerges worldwide, intent on destroying it. Motivated by envy and hate, the evil force exploits the openness of the civilization to wreak havoc upon it. Only in the nick of time does the civilization find the strength and moral fiber necessary to destroy the evil and thus save humanity.

Fable 2: The world is ruled by a giant corporatist power that exerts control through technologies and materialist comforts. This sinister force acts to seduce, brainwash, monitor and intimidate the world's people. But a few descendants of a former, more spiritual world, hidden away in mountains and teeming cities, keep the old faith alive. Through their cunning and bravery, these outlaws discover weaknesses in the system, and they exploit those weaknesses to destroy it and thereby liberate humanity.

Whatever happens to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, America's long-term security may depend more on which fable most people worldwide believe describes the future.

These are potent and dangerous fables. Each is animated by the righteousness of its cause and the conviction that survival depends on destroying the opposing evil. Each also offers a comprehensive narrative that explains all politics, economics and social change as aspects of a single drama played out on the world stage. And each fable reinforces its opposite: The more one is believed and acted upon, the more plausible its opposite becomes to those who are thereby threatened. And as those who are threatened act upon the opposing fable, they thereby confirm the fears of those who cling to the other.

By acting as if it believes Fable 1, the Bush administration is starting to convince many people around the globe that Fable 2 is closer to the truth. In its commitment to invading Iraq regardless of what most of its major allies believe to be necessary or prudent, its insistence on the right to move preemptively against any nation it considers potentially dangerous to American interests, its quickness to see terrorist links to al-Qaeda in almost any separatist or insurgent movement -- in Chechnya, the Philippines, Colombia, Venezuela and many other hot spots around the world -- and its assertion of American military power as the preferred method of dealing with instability, the administration is fomenting anti-Americanism almost everywhere outside the United States. In a matter of months the White House has undermined NATO, severely jeopardized America's relationships with Europe, Japan and Latin America, and encouraged Arab and Islamic extremism across North Africa and Asia.

The point here is not to suggest a moral equivalency between terrorism and Bush's foreign policy but to understand why the administration's ham-fisted approach to diplomacy -- you're either with us or against us -- is playing into the hands of radicals who want the world to believe Fable 2. That a large and growing number of people outside the United States now tell pollsters America is a greater threat to world peace than al-Qaeda is evidence not just of the White House's inept communications but of its larger failure to explain and justify its actions to a world that had been largely sympathetic toward America in the months following September 11 but is now almost universally cynical about this nation's motives.

Not since the Vietnam War have we witnessed such a profound loss of faith in the moral authority of the United States. The consequences are potentially tragic. If we appear more like the world's bully than its beacon light, how can we count on our friends and neighbors to help us reduce the odds of further terrorist attacks here? If Fable 2 offers the world's destitute and angry a more convincing explanation for their condition, how can we prevent the ranks of terrorists from growing?

Equally worrisome is the possibility that Americans come to believe Fable 1, unleashing a new and more virulent xenophobia and jingoism. An American public scarred by 9-11 and fearful of future terrorist attacks is especially vulnerable to demagoguery about America's unalloyed virtue and a worldwide conspiracy of evil that threatens our survival. A similar narrative captured the American mind in the 1950s when communism seemed poised to obliterate us, but in the 1950s we hadn't been traumatized by thousands of civilian deaths on American soil. The consequences this time around could be a larger erosion of civil liberties at home and a more uncompromising militarism abroad that gives the rest of the world greater reason to believe Fable 2.

Extremists gain power when politics becomes polarized around opposite views of reality. As the two fables gain credibility among opposing camps, the world's single remaining superpower grows ever more isolated, and the world becomes an increasingly dangerous place.

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