In an age of terrorism when strong, trusted leadership is essential, America’s global image has plunged to depths that were unthinkable even a few years ago.
So, today we present the results of an urgent investigative quest for new, super-smart weapons and ways to restore the United States’ worldwide reputation. Naturally, we hit all the best sources: A former Defense Secretary, a former Senate Armed Services Chairman, a former Marine general — and a suburban Washington D.C. dentist whose office has a brand new slide show in a picture frame.
Our first stop was George Washington University, where a prestigious think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, gathered former Defense Secretary William Cohen, former Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, the former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut and CNN chief diplomatic correspondent Christiane Amanpour. This was the first of a series of what is billed as the “Cohen-Nunn Dialogues,” discussions on new national directions.
Kohut began by casting a poll-based pall, summarizing Pew’s impressive survey of 45 countries. Kohut said that “anti-Americanism had deepened,” even among U.S. allies — “and certainly the image of the U.S. is abysmal among the publics of Muslim countries.” In Turkey, between 2000 and 2007, those with a favorable view of the United States fell from 52 percent to just 9 percent. In Germany, it declined from 78 percent to 30 percent.
It was the Marine general who focused sharply on the need for non-military efforts. Zinni, who commanded all U.S. troops in the Middle East, spent the Vietnam War living not with U.S. troops but with Vietnamese villagers. In 1970 he almost died after being shot in a field near Danang.
“When we arrive on the scene, where is the entity that matches up with our battalions that does political reconstruction, economic reconstruction, social reconstruction?” Zinni asked. “…Where are the people that have the cultural understanding, the almost anthropological depth of understanding of the culture and how to do business in that culture? They’re absent. We’re alone on that battlefield.”
When Cohen asked what average Americans can do to help change the U.S. image abroad, the discussion turned to ways all Americans can contribute. “…citizens can make a big difference,” said CNN’s Amanpour. “…I think you really need to think about the world and your role in the world, I think you need to understand that it’s not okay just to be sitting in America and thinking that you’re just fine, that this is a powerful country, it’s economy’s great and you don’t need to think about the rest of the world.”
She talked about an improved Peace Corps — with doctors, business people, teachers, all going abroad to help somewhere. (Keen-minded readers will recognize that as a favorite theme in my last book, “Avoiding Armageddon,” which noted that sometimes ordinary people must lead their leaders by demanding they do what is right.)
The next day, I visited my dentist, Dr. Stan Shulman, and entering his office in the basement of his suburban home, I discovered I’d just done my investigative journalism for the week. On a shelf was a battery-operated picture frame clicking through slides showing how he’d just spent his spring vacation — volunteering as a dentist in rural Vietnam.
Shulman paid for his roundtrip flight and worked on children for a week in a makeshift clinic at Hoa Boc, in a school 30 minutes from Danang — not far from the field where Gen. Zinni once lay near death.
This was a dental program run by an admirable group, the East Meets West Foundation. The Vietnam dental program was begun in 1996 by Dr. Charles F. Craft, who lives in Cambodia. On the phone from Phnom Penh, Craft said his program treats some 10,000 Vietnamese children a year, thanks to some 100 dentists who pay their own way to Vietnam to volunteer. His program’s budget is just $85,000 a year.
“At first, the Vietnamese government greeted us with a lot of mistrust and skepticism,” Craft said. “But now they are very supportive.”
Dr. Shulman’s slides showed children looking somber and unsure waiting in line to for their turn _ then smiling and waving afterward.
“Most had never been to a dentist,” Shulman said. “They were amazingly stoic — so brave. Almost no one cried. Their teachers and parents were clearly grateful. It was a great vacation. I’m going again next year.”
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)