The best political lesson I ever learned came many years ago when I worked for a wire service and was told not to send stories about the United Nations to newspapers west of the Mississippi River. On the hour or half-hour, I'd throw the proper switch and envision U.N. stories plunging into the Big Muddy like so many lemmings. This, I fear, is what is happening to John Kerry's message that the United States is no longer loved abroad. Splash!

Kerry and his surrogates have been saying this one way or another for months. Jimmy Carter mentioned it in his convention speech and so did Teddy Kennedy. For Kerry himself, it has been a rhetorical staple. "We have lost the good will of the world," he said last year. More recently, making his approach to this city and the nomination, he put it this way at a Florida rally: "I am not exaggerating when I tell you . . . never in 35 years have I seen the United States as . . . derided and disrespected as we are today." No doubt.

But unless America has changed dramatically in those 35 years, a great many people in this country don't give a hoot how the United States is perceived by the rest of the world. We have always been a provincial nation -- smug, arrogant and convinced that God looks upon us as a doting mother does her only son. For some, America's uniqueness is a deeply felt religious conviction, and it would not matter to them and to many others what the rest of the world thinks. What matters is whether we are right.

It just so happens that when it comes to Iraq and other matters of foreign policy, we are wrong -- tragically so. George Bush has conducted a bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy through which he has alienated allies by repudiating treaties and by telling them, in the inimitable words of Teresa Heinz Kerry, to shove it. As for the war in Iraq, it has been everything our carping foreign critics said it would be -- unnecessary and unending. If, as it is said, an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters can produce "Hamlet," then the French can be right from time to time. They were about Iraq.

The way to say the Bush administration was wrong about Iraq and so much else is simply to say it. The way not to say it is to measure American foreign policy by French or German or even British approval. After all, countless surveys tell us that America is scorned in the Middle East. But that hardly means American policy in that region is not the right one. Few American politicians, certainly not Kerry, would advocate abandoning Israel even though that would make Uncle Sam much more popular in the region. If you have to choose between "right" and "popular," most Americans would say choose "right." It is the way we see ourselves.

Kerry has been caricatured as a waffler, as someone who checks himself too often in the mirror of public opinion. In a long political career, only a moron would consistently hold the same positions, but there is a smidgen of truth to the accusation about Kerry -- and it stands in stark relief when it comes to the war in Iraq. His position is too sophisticated, too caveated -- footnoted to a fare-thee-well. He either cannot or will not say that he was wrong to have voted for the enabling congressional resolution. Instead of clarity, we get suggestion, implication, intimation -- a smear on the page.

We get none of that from Bush. Say what you will about him, he is perceived as taking his own measure, of having a polling base of just one: himself. With him, certain things are about good and evil, right and wrong. That accounts for his otherwise inexplicable standing in the polls -- tied with Kerry -- and why he is considered the better of the two on national security. You can question his judgment and you can question his smarts, but even many of his critics do not question his convictions. Maybe more to the point, you know he never does -- world opinion notwithstanding.

Kerry is right about America's standing abroad and he is right, too, to want to do something about it. But he argues the case oddly, weakly, appearing to look for confirmation and backup from abroad. It's the wrong place to look -- and everyone both west and east of the Mississippi knows it. His gut, not what others think, is what really matters.

Let 'er rip.

cohenr@washpost.com