Like it or not, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has done an immense amount to restore American prestige in the world. Not since the destruction of the Twin Towers has there been dancing in the streets anywhere on the planet to celebrate events in America. It is to be hoped, of course, that it is not the same people doing the dancing.
In Delhi, Indians kissed Obama’s photo. Parties spilled into the Kenyan streets. In Britain, the newspapers were beside themselves with joy. The Daily Mirror, a tabloid with a circulation of 3 million, ran a photo of the president-elect with a single large word to accompany it: BELIEVE. Even politicians who might have been expected to have more affinity for John McCain took pains to rejoice over Obama’s victory.
A group of 8,000 Bedouin living in Galilee gleefully claimed Obama as a relative, thanks to his resemblance to a Kenyan who had worked in British-mandated Palestine in the 1930s. It is unlikely that anyone would have claimed Senator McCain, let alone President Bush, as a long-lost relative.
In France, the left-leaning, originally Maoist newspaper Liberation said that the fact that America had a member of a racial minority and a woman among the contenders for the highest offices in the land meant that France could learn something about democracy from America. (It meant openness, which is not quite the same as democracy and may even sometimes be its opposite.)
When he went to Berlin, Obama addressed 200,000 enthusiastic people; it is doubtful that the Republican candidate would have drawn 200. After his election, the German tabloid Bild carried the headline “Messiah Obama,” and though one might have thought that Germans, of all people, would have had enough of political messiahs, the characterization was a compliment. “Everyone has fallen in love with the new America,” Bild said.
Furthermore, the election of an opponent of George W. Bush, that object of global scorn, reassured the world that, contrary to conspiracy theorists, the United States is not a giant run by a tiny coterie of ruthless men bent on world domination.
Finally, the fact that Obama is black goes a long way toward expunging America’s original historical sin, that of racism. It renders nugatory the charge of intellectuals around the world—and in American academia—that its pretensions to being the Land of the Free are hypocritical, a sentiment first expressed in Doctor Johnson’s famous question from his “Taxation No Tyranny” of 1775: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
Of course, there have been important positions occupied before by American blacks, both elected and appointed. But the presidency has a symbolic importance beyond its constitutional weight, and now no one will ever again be able to say that a man of African extraction cannot obtain the votes of large numbers of whites.
There are, it is true, a few naysayers: in the liberal British newspaper The Guardian, columnists whom one suspects were either stuck for something new to say about the election or prey to especial private bitterness argued that the election was not really a blow for racial equality because Michelle Obama could never have been elected, and the Republican Party certainly would never have chosen a black nominee. This seems to be a somewhat hard test for the United States to pass. Such people will not really be satisfied until the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is black.
On the other hand, the columnists did inadvertently draw attention to the absurdity of assuming that Obama’s election will have some magical effect upon race relations. It is grossly premature to think that America, or anywhere else for that matter, has now reached some kind of post-racial consciousness in which color has become completely unimportant. To think so is to be very unrealistic about the potentialities and the actualities of the human race itself.
But here is what Janine di Giovanni, an American expatriate living in Paris, wrote in London’s Evening Standard:
The surrealness of it struck me yesterday at Bon Marche. The man at the exchange counter, usually so surly, asked me my nationality. I got ready to do the usual: bowing my head with shame and whispering so no one could hear: ‘Americaine.’
Thanks to the election, this cringe was no longer necessary, neither from the prudential nor the philosophical point of view: Then it hit me. I no longer had to feel ashamed! Barack Obama had liberated me and my fellow expats from a lifetime of humiliation. ‘I’m American,’ I practically shouted…
Note here that it was President-elect Obama’s achievement alone, and not that of her fellow Americans who voted for him. This in itself speaks volumes of her racism, albeit of the Worc Mij, rather than the Jim Crow, variety. For her, Obama’s achievement was greater than that of all earlier Americans put together, from Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain to Jonas Salk. Only he gave her reason to be proud. She continued:
But after Barack, it’s different. The day of the elections, I received this email from a French friend: ‘To my American friends, this won’t happen often, so savour it. Here is a high five to your great country from a Frenchman.’ Another French friend wrote: ‘You guys make huge mistakes but when you do it right, you really do it.’
Whether this reflects more upon the American author or her French friends is a difficult question. What seems certain is that if an American of Chinese or Indian origin had been elected, Janine de Giovanni would not have written with quite so much self-satisfaction. From this it follows that she has race on the brain, and one race more than others. At the very least, you could not call this a post-racial consciousness brought about by Obama’s victory.
Indeed, the idea that all historical sins have been washed away and all social difficulties resolved by the sprinkling of the holy water of this election is patently absurd, as absurd as investing the president-elect with magical powers in other directions.
George W. Bush’s presidency marked the recent nadir of American popularity and trust in its leadership, according to polls nearly everywhere. “It is better to be feared than loved,” AEI’s Michael Ledeen advised Bush. But to be feared is not quite the same as to be powerful, for you can be feared for reasons other than the power you wield. Power is in any case often an illusion and it always has limits. Did the Iraq war deter or encourage Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev?
Barack Obama cannot singlehandedly accomplish a rehabilitation, neither by force of personality nor as a political emblem. Indeed, world skepticism is already making a comeback. Italian journalist Michele Brambilla pointed out the obvious: Obama is but a politician, and one should not expect too much of politicians as a species. A wary China Daily wrote that Obama had been elected because voters judged him to have a better grasp of how to respond to the economic crisis, but noted that there is no practical evidence to show that he does—and his comments on Chinese economic policy and how he might respond to it could lead to conflict. In the Middle East, Obama’s support for Israel during the election led most people to think that, from the Arab perspective, there would not be much change, at least for the better.
Here it is useful to remember Marx’s words, not untrue simply because they came from him, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living
For all his transcendent appeal, Obama cannot overcome the harsh realities of a troubled world. He inherits two wars, from one of which, Iraq, he has promised swiftly to extricate America, the other of which, Afghanistan, he has promised to win by expanding the effort. This is not exactly what the Times of India meant when it suggested that Obama stood for all that was good in America while Bush stood for “the bullying superpower that undertakes bellicose adventures abroad.”
It might not be altogether easy to withdraw from Iraq without the appearance of defeat, which would deal a great blow to American prestige and pretensions. If Iraq without America declines into chaos, defeat it will have been, a near pointless and very expensive expedition that solved nothing. And although Obama has said that, unlike his predecessor, he will give the military clear objectives, it is far from clear what the goal is in Afghanistan and, if there is one, whether it can be achieved.
Does Obama think that foreign policy is the pursuit of interests or ideals, or that interests can be secured only by the forcible promotion of ideals? Does he understand that no power, be it ever so great, is sufficient to mold others into precisely the desired form? That Afghanistan will never be Denmark? To adapt slightly Marx’s dictum, countries can be changed, but not changed as others please: they are not putty in the fingers of workmen. Does the false analogy with postwar Germany and Japan, the great success stories of transformation brought about by war, have any place in his mind? We do not know. All we know is that he is like the traveler in Ireland who asks the local how to get to a certain destination and receives the reply, “If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”
When I looked at Obama shortly after the election, with his economic advisers behind him, I had a powerful sense of looking at a Politburo: gray-faced old men, tried and tested—which is not quite the same as successful, of course, except in the most careerist terms.
They were the living—or perhaps undead—embodiment of old ideas, the other side of the coin to Obama’s soaring speeches. That rhetoric was always stale, despite the excellence of its delivery. When, for example, he said that he wanted to protect the pensions of employees rather than the severance of CEO’s, he was appealing not to reason but to a force very much more powerful than reason—resentment. It is true that chief executive officers have managed to extract large sums from companies over whose destruction they have presided. But it requires very little thought to realize that it is a little late in the day to save people’s pensions by being derogatory about CEO’s, however much they might deserve it.
Moreover, the appointment of Rahm Emanuel, a former director of Freddie Mac and the largest congressional recipient of hedge-fund donations, as White House chief of staff induces a powerful and not very pleasant sense of déjà vu. The appointment is a sign of things to come.
Britain has seen the Obama effect before. In 1997, a fresh-faced politician called Anthony Blair, promising the sun, the moon, and the stars, spoke with a passionate intensity that was somewhat lacking in detail and was elected to office in the land. His was a bright new dawn: a government that governed for the many not the few, as he put it, giving the country a fresh start after a long-lasting, decrepit, and exhausted government had been thoroughly discredited.
Within a short time, this former unilateral-disarmer had proved himself the most belligerent and bellicose leader of Britain in recent times, willing to attack anyone as long as the victim couldn’t fight back. His protests at the corruption of the previous government soon seemed to be more at its trifling scale rather than its dishonesty. What had been but a cottage industry became wholesale looting, peculation, influence-peddling, and embezzlement, all under a careful cover of legality and deep public purpose. Nothing like it had been seen since the 18th century. Shady businessmen of every nationality (and none) were sure of a receptive ear (and purse). With freedom in his mouth, Prime Minister Blair created one new criminal offense a day for ten years and oversaw an unprecedented increase in bureaucratic control and official surveillance. Profligate with spending public funds to build an immense constituency of dependents, ranging from the near destitute to multimillionaires created by government contracts, he left a country—though of course not himself—on the brink of ruin. Speaking with evangelical fervor and giving every appearance of taking himself in, he behaved with a lack of scruple that left even cynics amazed and departed office the most reviled man in his nation’s recent history.
I hope I am wrong in seeing an analogy with President-elect Obama. I hope that his rhetoric does not conceal as empty an interior as Blair’s. That his youthfulness and rhetorical idealism do not belie an authoritarianism. That his moralizing does not conceal a lack of scruple and contempt for due process. That by social justice he does not mean pork barrel. But I do not think the auguries are good. When I heard him promise that he would cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, I wondered how anyone could believe it for a moment, or that he would go through the budget line by line, as he said he would. Compared to that, Fairyland is intensely real.
For now, Obama’s election has restored American prestige. It denies anti-Americans the pleasure of charging America with irredeemable racism. But the roots of anti-Americanism are far deeper than the ostensible reasons for it. Americans no less than the rest of the world have reason to be skeptical.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor who divides his time between France and England. He is contributing editor of the City Journal and his latest book is Not With a Bang but a Whimper.