Palin's "Hill": Shining City is Forbidding Fortress

PARIS -- It may mean victory in America that a possible U.S. president can survive 90 minutes of debate without people bursting into laughter. Nowhere else.

With crib notes and cutesiness, Sarah Palin avoided what analysts call a "game-changing" moment. Soon after, she chanted to a crowd, "USA, USA." But this is no game.
Just spin a globe and point. Feelings about Palin -- and the man who chose her -- range mostly from fear to contempt. We Americans had better understand this.

An unstable, and now half-broke, world has had it with what the United States has become. For allies and adversaries alike, Palin is a final straw. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev just declared in Berlin that America's global dominance is over. Yes, Chancellor Angela Merkel nodded.

Imagine. Germans and Russians who killed each other by the millions within living memory no longer see the America of D-Day, the Marshall Plan, or even "Tear Down that Wall."

One answer is, "Who gives a damn what foreigners think?" That is, we're so powerful we don't have to care. That was George W. Bush's message. To test it, try walking anywhere in Baghdad, much-vaunted surge or not. Or just check your bank balance.

Afghanistan and Iraq, as did Vietnam, show the limits of military might. Russia, in fact, has more tactical nukes than America. But that's not the issue. Nor is it energy, Palin's mantra. Oil is fungible, on sale to anyone until it runs out. Autonomy means alternatives, not more drilling in Alaskan wilds.

What matters to others is that "city on a hill," a phrase Palin attributed to Ronald Reagan, but which comes from Matthew in the Bible she prefers to history texts. John Winthrop told settlers landing at Massachusetts Bay in 1630: "We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." When John F. Kennedy recalled Winthrop's sermon in 1961, he left out the Christianity. He was also talking to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, animists, and everyone else. Kennedy echoed George Washington's farewell address, a plea that America be an exception as an example to others.

Today, ex-admirers look up at a fortified city on a hill bristling with guns, with people who seem not to care how their indifference impacts so heavily on others. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, "The damn-the-world, God-chose-us rage of that America has sharpened as U.S. exceptionalism has become harder to square with the 21st-century world's interconnectedness." How can you be exceptional, he asked, "when every major problem you have to face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?"

Sarah Palin plays well in this fortress on a hill. While Joe Biden spoke sensibly about life-and-death matters affecting billions, she smirked. He laid out strategies and remedies; she had not the slightest clue. Palin lumped "the Castro brothers" with Kim Jong-Il. She managed to say "Ahmadinejad" but has no idea that he answers to a theocracy. In giving advice to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, she got his name wrong. Do we think the world doesn't notice?

In most other democracies, voters want world-savvy leaders who might be smarter they are, and with a sense of decorum that takes vastly different cultures into account. This is not about diplomatic nicety. The fate of our world depends on it.

Pakistan, for instance, is now the most worrisome place on earth, fighting an all-out war with Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in a backlash to U.S. policy gone wrong. Asif Ali Zardari, the new president whose name John McCain forgot, was flustered in Washington when Palin appeared in a short skirt and batted her eyes. Were his remarks to her "inappropriate"? Was she flirting? Either way, Islamist radicals issued a fatwa against his life, hugely complicating his balancing act.

She is America's candidate, not theirs. But the inconvenient truth of global affairs is that others' reactions matter. Statesmen, and stateswomen, know this. "If half of America is turned off by Palin," Larry Gerber told me, "you can imagine the reaction of Europeans who already think we're a bunch of selfish ignoramuses." Gerber is an old pal who spent decades as an Associated Press correspondent. He speaks German, Russian, and Swedish, with a command of history back to antiquity. He got to know Palin while he was an editor in Juneau. He calls her a political chameleon. For all her right wing talk, he said, she runs the only welfare state in America.

What worries him most is her insularity. "It would be okay if she admitted she knew nothing, but said she was willing to learn," he said. "But she can't even say where she gets her news. The very notion that she even approaches competence is ridiculous." But it doesn't take an insider to see that. To a wider world, from the tribal territories of Pakistan to the Brandenburg Gate, it is all too obvious.