If the globe can’t vote next November, it can find itself in Obama. Troubled by the violent chasm between the West and the Islamic world? Obama seems to bridge it [bold mine-DL]. Disturbed by the gulf between rich and poor that globalization spurs? Obama, the African-American, gets it: the South Side of Chicago is the South Side of the world. ~Roger Cohen
You know, the South Side has its share of problems, but this is ridiculous. Obama “gets” the problems of globalisation because he lives on the South Side? Or does he “get” it because of his ancestry? Do all people living on the South Side possess such special globalisation-understanding powers?
Also, what is all this talk about Obama bridging the “violent chasm” between the West and the Islamic world? How does he do that? By saying, “I used to live in Indonesia, but by the way, in case you were wondering, I am not and never have been a Muslim”? Perhaps he bridges the chasm by reminding inattentive foreign audiences that he supported the bombing of Lebanon, has proposed sanctions and divestment schemes aimed at Iran and has vowed to launch strikes on Pakistani territory without that government’s permission. How’s that bridge looking now?
The other problem with this talk of Obama as a bridge-builder with the Islamic world is that people might take it rather too seriously and see him as being too close to the Islamic world. The logic of “only Nixon could go to China” applies here as well. Someone who is already seen, rightly or wrongly, as personally close to or understanding of the ‘other’ has much more difficulty engaging in the kinds of negotiations or contacts that Obama proposes to have. This may seem like an absurd aspect of domestic politics, but if Obama’s supporters were interested in his chance at being a viable national candidate they would stop saying these things right now. Having combated the false reports that he was a Muslim as a child, Obama has also been conflated or associated with two major hate-figures in the American mind, namely Hussein and Bin Laden. To portray him as the natural bridge-builder with the Islamic world unwittingly reinforces the negative associations that various chain-mailers, bloggers, pundits and candidates have been making. Above all, it stresses how dissimilar and to some extent unique Obama’s background is for most Americans, which makes for interesting magazine copy and punditry but does very little for a candidate’s electoral prospects. “Vote for Obama–he’s not like you in so very many ways” is not a winning slogan in a mass democracy. Identitarianism is one aspect of democracy that is one of its most deplorable features and one of its most basic and unavoidable. Being able to identify with a candidate is essential, and anything that weakens this hurts the candidate. Selling a candidate who already has a reputation for being a bit aloof and “above it all” by referring to his ability to understand other parts of the world makes the candidate seem even more removed and distant from the crowd. (Today’s lesson: democracy typically produces poor leadership for sound foreign policy–which is not to say that Obama’s foreign policy is sound.)
Michael Ignatieff, never tired of being absurdly wrong about matters outside Canada’s borders, is quoted saying:
Outsiders know it’s your choice. Still, they are following this election with passionate interest. And it’s clear Barack Obama would be the first globalized American leader, the first leader in whom internationalism would not be a credo, it would be in his veins.
It seems to me that this is a very tricky and potentially politically suicidal line of argument to use if you actually want Obama to win any of the primaries. When Obama advances this idea, he does it in a smarter way by stressing that “his story” is an “American story.” Most Americans are souring on certain aspects of globalisation, so what makes anyone think that portraying a candidate as a “globalised leader” is a good idea? Obviously, Obama is embracing the “nation of immigrants,” “diversity is our strength” rhetoric that we hear all the time, and for a sizeable portion of the population this is an attractive or at least unobjectionable message, but even here he is on potentially treacherous ground.
What Ignatieff said, and what Cohen is arguing, exposes Obama to a rather fierce backlash if people begin to believe it: having “internationalism in the veins” may imply some kind of hybridity that reduces the person’s connection to his country (this is the “vaguely French” attack against Kerry taken to the nth degree), and simultaneolusly identifies a policy perspective with ‘otherness’, which unwittingly hints that this “internationalism” is not really fully American. Many of the arguments advanced in Obama’s favour along these lines are rather recklessly identifying in Obama things that I am not sure that he would even say about himself. Armed with quotes about his being a “globalised leader,” you can just imagine what his opponents would say in a tough general election fight. Obama’s actual policy positions on immigration, for example, will be hard enough for him to overcome in a general election (should it somehow come to that) without foreign observers taking about how agreeable he is to foreigners. The attack ads write themselves. Remember Kerry’s ill-fated boast about all of the foreign leaders who supported his election? This does not play well in most parts of America.
Then there was Mexico’s foreign minister, in what I have to assume is an unwitting display of irony:
My sense is the symbolism in Mexico of a dark-skinned American president would be enormous. We’ve got female leaders now in Latin America — in Chile, in Argentina. But the idea of a U.S. leader who looks the way the world looks as seen from Mexico is revolutionary.
A U.S. leader who “looks the way the world looks” is supposed to have great symbolic resonance. That’s the other side of Obama-as-international-wonderworker argument. It is necessarily a superficial and rather insulting thing to say about the rest of the world: you cannot identify with America because we just haven’t elected the right symbolic candidates, and now you can!
There is also the small matter that Obama’s foreign policy, which does stress interdependence to the point of insanity (“the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people”), is one of the craziest, most hubristic and dangerous foreign policies on offer in this election cycle. If the rest of the world is hoping for Obama to win, maybe they should think again.