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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Missing Moral Authority

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I recently attended a dinner in New York at which the American Jewish Historical Society presented its annual award to former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz for his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry during the 1980s.

Sitting in the audience were former Soviet prisoners of conscience and refuseniks, many of whom had to wait for over a decade for permission. That they were eventually let go was due largely to U.S. pressure. Moreover, while there was political, economic and military horse-trading between the two superpowers, the most effective pressure applied on the Kremlin in the human rights area was, in fact, moral.

Two decades ago, Washington's moral authority gave U.S. leaders the right to urge Soviet leaders to do the right thing. It was a moral act when Schultz attended a Passover Seder at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in April 1987, sitting at the table side by side with wives of imprisoned activists. It was a moral stand, too, that U.S. President Ronald Reagan took in June of that year, calling on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!"

Soviet officials bridled at U.S. interference in their internal affairs, but they listened.

Today, it is inconceivable that George W. Bush could pull off such a stand. Since 2003, his government has squandered most of the moral authority the United States had built since World War II. Bush's criticism of anyone on moral grounds -- no matter how corrupt or murderous the regime -- is likely to elicit only cynical laughter. His is the government of Abu Ghraib, Haditha and Halliburton, and its poster boys are U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Had a similar administration held power in the mid-1980s, not only would Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union not have been possible, but the United States might not have won the Cold War. Gorbachev's liberalization at home and the loosening of the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe were largely driven by his desire to see his country reintegrated into the community of nations.

Now, in a stunning role reversal, President Vladimir Putin could go to the notorious U.S. prison at Guantanamo and challenge Bush to tear down those walls.

But don't hold your breath. Putin is unlikely to infuse morality into politics lest somebody else starts judging Russia' endemic corruption, rollback of democracy, blatant confiscation of private property and murky political murders.

Putin is not alone. Even if there aren't more unsavory characters, demagogues and dangerous dictators in the world today, they are certainly getting bolder. Just look at North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brandishing their existing or soon-to-be-acquired nuclear weapons. Or at the government of Sudan, blithely carrying out genocide in Darfur in defiance of world public opinion. There is a great need for international moral guidance today, without which such disparate, pressing issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the spread of Islamic radicalism and global warming can't be addressed effectively. It is clear that no other nation can replace the United States as a moral arbiter in the world.

But it is equally clear that the Bush administration can never be that arbiter. Bush lacks the moral standing of U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for instance, to bring the Arabs and the Israelis to the table. The carnage in Iraq, too, will drag on because all sides in the conflict and Iraq's neighbors hold Washington in utter disdain.

The global agenda will be in abeyance until a new U.S. president takes office in January 2009. The question is whether the United States will be able to revitalize its moral climate at home enough to recover moral authority abroad, regardless of who the next president will be.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.