WASHINGTON The troubles of the United States in Iraq have been blamed on many causes: too few troops, wrong strategies, flawed intelligence, a very stubborn commander-in-chief.
The Man on the Moon rarely rates a public mention.
But the Man on the Moon looms so large in relations between the U.S. and 28 million Iraqis that every U.S. field commander knows his job would be easier if no American had ever set foot on the moon.
The Man on the Moon even gets a specific mention in the counterinsurgency manual the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps adopted last December. It is now taught at every U.S. military college and has the following passage:
"U.S. forces start with a built-in challenge because of their reputation for accomplishment, what some call 'the man on the moon syndrome.' This refers to the expressed disbelief that a nation able to put a man on the moon cannot quickly restore basic services.
"In some cultures, failure to deliver promised results is automatically interpreted as deliberate deception rather than good intentions gone awry."
The "expressed disbelief" is voiced in such questions in Iraq as "how come the Americans could send a man on the moon but can't bring us power. Or water. Or jobs. Or security.
Didn't Paul Bremer, at the time Iraq's effective ruler, say back in August 2003 that the country would soon have a 24-hour electricity supply?
Four years later, in one of the hottest summers on record in a hot capital, the citizens of Baghdad had one or two hours of electricity a day and the electricity ministry said the situation was the worst since U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003.
And according to a September poll of 2,200 Iraqis commissioned by the news organizations BBC, ABC and NHK, only 29 percent of Iraqis think their lives will be better in a year's time. That's down from 64 percent in 2005.
They were much gloomier still on the availability of electricity, clean water, and fuel for cooking and driving.
The counterinsurgency manual was not specifically written for Iraq though lessons drawn from the first three years of the war were incorporated and the man behind the project, General David Petraeus, is now overall commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
The Man on the Moon syndrome was first diagnosed not long after Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969 and declared "that's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
GAP BETWEEN PERCEPTION AND REALITY
Eleven other American astronauts set foot on the moon between 1969 and 1972, when the lunar landing program was discontinued. By then, the moon missions had helped establish the United States as a country of near-magical powers in the minds of many around the world.
The gap between perceptions of the United States as a can-do-everything country and the reality of a place where things can go wrong, and often do, never closed.
It has bedeviled U.S. diplomacy, disaster relief operations and post-war stability efforts around the world.
That gap has made it easy for enemies of the U.S. to portray straightforward mismanagement and incompetence as deceptions made in bad faith. In terms of branding, America has been the victim of its own success and the man on the moon played a leading role in creating the brand.
Its durability is astonishing, particularly in the Third World, and even in countries where the U.S. is unpopular.
There appear to be no academic studies on the prevalence of the Man in the Moon syndrome in different geographies. But empirical evidence, from a lifetime of travel, suggests that distance plays a role - belief in U.S. efficiency shrinks the closer you are to America.
In other words, you are more likely to hear a Man on the Moon complaint in Basra or Bujumbura than in Reynosa, just across the U.S.-Mexican border, or Toronto.
America's neighbors are more aware of the superpower's weaknesses, from an ageing infrastructure that results in collapsed bridges and exploding Manhattan steam pipes to computer breakdowns that paralyze air traffic.
In the U.S. itself, the Man in the Moon is rarely invoked. There were no moon-related comparisons in New Orleans, when the levees broke, the city filled with water and rescue efforts were late and ineffective.
"The United States seems to have become the superpower that can't tie its own shoelaces," says John McQuaid, author of a book on Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wrought.
Perhaps. Still, there is a new phenomenon that testifies to the belief that lunar missions confer hyperpower status on the country that carries them out - moon envy.
China, the emerging superpower, suffers from that affliction. It wants to put a man on the moon by 2020. If the counterinsurgency manual's warning is anything to go by, an old saying comes to mind: be careful what you wish for...
(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)