Like individuals, countries can benefit from seeing themselves through the eyes of others. Many Americans would ignore a European view; the supposed jealousy of “Old Europe ” for our dynamism has been baked into a national cliché and digested. Views from the Middle East, in light of current military deployments, would not be objective either. But what of South Asia, itself hit by a catastrophic natural disaster this year, a region where gratitude for Washington’s tsunami assistance remains very much alive?

Early this month, the International Herald Tribune published a story based on attitudes in that region at the time of Katrina, views jolted by the gap between the image of America that locals had in their minds and what Katrina presented on their TV screens. “How is it possible?” asked one Indonesian journalist. “How is it possible that in an advanced society like the United States it is so difficult to provide help or rescue people? How is it possible this breakdown in law and order could happen? Let’s just say that it is noted that America sends troops to try to maintain order in distant places, but it seems to have difficulty to do it in their own back yard.” Or as a Philippine government official put it, “It’s so heartbreaking to see how helpless America has become. You’re not strong any more. You can’t even save your own countrymen and there you are, out there trying to control the world.”

Such statements don’t come configured with neo-Marxian accoutrements about hegemony and imperialism—they are, rather like the child’s response to the emperor’s new clothes, a conclusion drawn from obvious visual evidence. Variations of this reaction swept the globe in the early days of September, at the beginning of Osama bin Laden’s second term.

The underlying cause of this turnabout in world thinking was America’s inability to tame the Iraq insurgency, two and half years after George W. Bush initiated a war of choice against Saddam. That war is not yet over for American troops or the Iraqis, but its basic strategic outcome is clear: as a vehicle for transforming the political culture of the Arab world in a pro-American direction, it is an utter failure.

The open question is whether America, as a society and as a government, is capable of recognizing this and making the necessary adjustments. That was the implicit subject of an important conference held in Washington on Week Two of Katrina—scheduled months before to mark the fourth anniversary of 9/11. The event brought together much of the county’s national-security elite—academics and policymakers (though few from the current Bush administration), politicians from both parties, figures as disparate as George Soros and Grover Norquist. The politically eclectic New America Foundation served as main sponsor.

Its director, Steven Clemons, spoke of an “emerging consensus” that held that while “military response to 9/11 was necessary,” it was not sufficient as a long-term anti-terrorism strategy.

In the language of Washington, phrases like “emerging consensus” are vital currency. As much as some (like myself) might wish the architects of the Iraq War would be put on trial, American policy will likely change through subtle shifts in establishment attitudes, such as an “emerging” view that sending 150,000 troops to occupy an Arab country that had nothing to do with bin Laden was not the wisest way to protect the United States from a terrorist threat. The etiquette of making a consensus emerge requires that one pretend to forget that many who now hold forth confidently on the unwisdom of Operation Iraqi Freedom two years ago spouted with equal certainty opinions molded by super-hawk Norman Podhoretz.

But is there really an emerging new consensus? In one sense, yes. This was a conference that could not have been held two years ago. A key panel during the first morning was devoted to “addressing legitimate grievances” in the Muslim world. For official Washington, which had gobbled up Bush’s talk about evildoers who hate our freedom, this was long an off-limits topic. No longer. Nir Rosen, author of the much admired New Yorker essay “Letter from Fallujah,” said, “they hate us not for what we are but what we do.” He noted that the city had become, courtesy of the U.S. Marine assault, a symbol of resistance and defiance throughout the Muslim world, with t-shirts and coffee mugs on sale from Mogadishu to Islamabad celebrating those who martyred themselves in its defense. Rosen added, “an American withdrawal from Iraq and Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories would do more to fight terrorism than any military action ever could.”

The University of Chicago’s Robert Pape affirmed this analysis, pointing out that suicide terrorism was a political tactic designed to force democratic regimes to withdraw from what the attackers consider their core territory. This kind of interpretation is hardly novel—after all, one left-wing organization ran ads prior to the Iraq invasion proclaiming, under a photograph of Osama bin Laden, “I want you to invade Iraq.” But until recently, to be associated with such views was—for those close to government or aspiring to be—a kind of career suicide.

The New Orleans debacle may have liberated the debate in the press as well as the intelligentsia. Because this wound was self-inflicted—the warnings about the levees ignored by the Bush administration, the ineptitude of the early relief effort—the veil of deference accorded the White House was pierced. As The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner put it, New Orleans had given many members of the mass media—particularly television correspondents on the scene —permission to ask impolite questions. Gone was the fear—for a press corps that had been acting as if it was embedded in the White House—that to be too critical was to be taken as “liberal” or “soft.”

And so at the conference one could hear rumblings of outrage that evoked the 1960s. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a dean at Princeton, denounced the administration’s policies at Guatanamo and Abu Ghraib with such passion and eloquence that one could only conclude that regardless of what heights she might reach in academia, her true calling lies in giving speeches (on the Mall perhaps) that would move millions.

But while this conference signaled a kind of elite consensus that the Bush response to terrorism was inadequate and counterproductive and received the endorsement of foreign-affairs specialists and retired heavyweights from both parties (Warren Rudman and Sam Nunn), it is not clear that this consensus touches the political system sufficiently to force a change of course.

If one wanted to despair about the prospect of the Democrats providing a meaningful alternative to the Bush foreign policy, one could do no better than Sen. Joseph Biden. He praised Bush’s second inaugural for revisiting the themes of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 address; it was as if he were in a time warp, untroubled by knowledge that anything had changed in the ensuing 44 years—the country’s share of world economic production, for instance—that might impinge on America’s capacity to “bear any burden” to secure for the world the blessings of liberty.

For Biden, Europeans who fail to enthuse about Bush were still culpable: he derided in typical Euro-bashing terms a German newspaper’s reaction to the Bush speech—“Bush Threatens More Freedom.” (In fact, the headline, if translated correctly, goes far to undermine the cliché about the nonexistent German sense of humor.)

For former Attorney General John Ashcroft, it was still a time for American-flag lapel pins and rhetoric about those not with us being against us; like the president, Ashcroft, when asked, could not come up with a single decision that might have been made differently in the War on Terror.

The one elected official who did em-brace the new consensus was Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who intersperses relatively banal internationalist observations with real insights. In a dinner speech during which he explained that America needed more cultural bridges to the world like student exchanges, he allowed, almost as an afterthought, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. The packed room burst into applause: could it have been the first time a Republican senator had acknowledged this fact?

Hagel is sometimes touted as a future president. Under more normal circumstances, his Council on Foreign Relations views would come across as tepid and uninspiring. But after eight years of George W. Bush, Hagel’s worldliness and consciousness of America’s very real limits seems, by comparison, Metternichian. It remains problematic for such a figure—Vietnam vet though he is—to get through the gauntlet of neocons and talk-radio chickenhawks he would face during the Republican primaries.

The New Orleans aftermath showed that most Democratic politicians are more comfortable with their golden oldies—accusing the Republicans of racism, for instance, after the black looting—than they are with raising any serious questions about imperial overstretch. Jesse Jackson might notice a link between troops in Iraq and a lack of sufficient troops in New Orleans, but not Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi.
Of course, the political stasis could be broken by the 2006 congressional elections—but it is probably optimistic to think so. In fact, there is no guarantee America will adjust to the changed circumstance. Democracy, while desirable, hardly guarantees effective government —as anyone who knows the British and French record during the 1930s can attest. The world perceived that something decisive had changed in September 2005, but political Washington may be the last to know.