Thursday, July 13, 2006 | One little-noticed event during the recent World Cup soccer tournament was that the American team was the only one driving around Germany in an unmarked bus. The other teams drove in buses proudly advertising their nations’ presence among soccer’s elite 32 qualifiers, while the U.S. team skulked around in anonymity.

Since World War II, no nation has been more admired and emulated in Germany than the United States. For a half century, German opinion-makers worked for closer cross-Atlantic ties, an effort broadly supported by the people. At times, Germans even put their relationship with America ahead of their partnership in the European Union. This trend continued until recently.

In the past, when public opinion turned against U.S. policies, as during the Vietnam War, German elites helped persuade their countrymen that nothing should weaken their country’s ties to America. The German Marshall Fund, established in 1972, was Germany’s effort to begin repaying part of the moral debt owed to America from the Marshall Plan, the billions of dollars transferred from America to Europe to help that shattered continent rebuild itself from the ashes of the Nazi catastrophe.

Chancellor Willy Brandt announced the German Marshall Fund at Harvard University on June 5, 1972 – the 25th anniversary of Secretary of State George Marshall’s unveiling of the Marshall Plan in the same place. Brandt called the Fund “an expression of our gratitude for the American decision in 1947 not to keep us out.” By insisting that Germany participate in the plan, Marshall and President Truman were betting on Germany becoming a democratic bulwark against communism, then threatening to spread westward from the Soviet Union.

In 1947, some Americans still had doubts about Germany, and in 1972 some Germans still had doubts about America. In 1972, the Vietnam War was unpopular in Europe, where it had fueled riots and terrorism, destabilized governments and aided Communist parties. Vietnam also complicated relations between Bonn and Washington over how to negotiate with Moscow on ending the Cold War and reunifying Germany.

Despite the troubles of the Vietnam era, Americans never had to hide in unmarked buses. I worked in Europe throughout the period, covered all the major political events from 1965 to 1980, and never saw America’s reputation for honesty, magnanimity and good judgment slip as far and as fast as it has today. Though West Europeans rightly believed Vietnam was the wrong place to take a stand against communism, they at least understood the United States’ argument and understood the Cold War.

It is the debacle of Iraq that caused our soccer team to hide in unmarked buses and live on military bases during the World Cup. Europeans can see the same daily destruction and dismemberment in Iraq that we see. They know that none of it will end until the occupiers are gone. Americans know it as well, but policy is paralyzed by an unpopular president and pusillanimous Congress willing to put political calculation and ambition ahead of the national and international interest.

The destruction taking place today is not just to Iraq. America has slipped further in world opinion than it ever did during Vietnam. Most of the world welcomed Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 with a putative plan to end the war. Nixon botched the plan, but it was always clear he was trying to get America out of a dead-end situation.

Few people understand Bush’s war, launched on bogus pretenses and overlaid with lies, errors and atrocities. As the war went wrong, Bush dug in his heels, insisting that Americans continue to put blind trust in failed policy and denouncing critics who would end the occupation as “cutting and running.”

Bush’s claim in Chicago last week that more National Guardsmen were going to Iraq to participate in a “noble cause,” was an insane denial of reality. Reality is that Iraq is a daily slaughterhouse. Reality is the Haditha inquiry into Marine murders, the arrest of five U.S. soldiers for rape and murder, the ongoing investigation into Abu Ghraib torture, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Guantanamo, the three Army colonels arrested for bribery, fraud and conspiracy in Iraq. Reality is Bush’s seizing power from Congress through “signing statements,” his attempts to silence critics (the Plame investigation), his spying on our telephone calls and bank statements.

Bush and his supporters in Congress may still see nobility in the destruction of a nation, but it is like the bishop’s advice to the prince when asked how to tell the faithful from the heretics during the siege of Albi: “Kill them all,” said the bishop, “God will know the difference.”

Bush’s approval rating now stands at 35 percent, and nothing – no tax cuts, immigration bill, flag-burning amendment, gun rights or restrictions on abortion will push it higher. America is now regarded, according to the latest Pew poll, as the most dangerous nation in the world, and anti-Americanism is on the rise again. From Iraq, to New Orleans, to the economy, to bringing the nation together, Bush’s presidency is not just a failure. It is a calamity. When he is gone, Bush will fall to the bottom of history’s ratings, down there with Buchanan, Hayes, Harding and some others whose names we no longer remember.

At some point, Bush’s successor will wash his hands of the folly of Iraq and begin to make restitution, as we tried to do in Vietnam. Who in Bush’s administration will come forward, as Robert McNamara did after Vietnam, to say, “we were wrong, terribly wrong?”

The deaths are in vain, the destruction in vain, the costs paid in vain, the occupation in vain. When we are gone, Iraqis can begin to put their country back together. When Bush is gone, Americans can begin to put our country back together, to restore our good name. In the meantime, kudos to our friends, the Germans, for setting an example of hospitality, bonhomie and civilized behavior during the World Cup.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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