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Face The Nations

Sullivan’s essay on Obama is now up, and for those who want still more discussion of Obama’s special qualities this is the essay for you.  It’s an interesting read, but this line of argument [1] still puzzles me [2]:

There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

(Side note: are we now assuming that the average Pakistani youth is our enemy?)  Not to dwell on the point too much more, but even supposing that a young Pakistani Muslim responds favourably to the appearance of a candidate who threatens to launch strikes at his country against his government’s wishes, it is not at all clear that this will outweigh the objections to U.S. policies around the world, almost all of which Obama pledges to continue.  Obama is simply less belligerent towards Iran than his rivals, and he backed up the bombardment of Lebanon virtually without qualification, and we’re supposed to think that his “phased redeployment” plan is going to inspire goodwill? 

It seems to me that all this does not give much credit to the audience that Obama is supposed to be so good at reaching, and it seems as if this endorses the idea that anti-American sentiment is to some significant degree a product of packaging and the perception of “who we are” and that anti-Americanism derives from hatred of “who we are” (or who we are perceived to be).  Obama’s advantage, then, seems to be that he changes the perception of “who we are,” and thus reduces anti-Americanism by saying, “Yes, well, you hated us in the past, but you had it all wrong–we weren’t really like what you thought we were.  Just look at the President!”  But anti-Americanism in particular does not generally derive from opposition to “who we are,” but pretty clearly derives from what we do.  When it comes to “what we do,” Obama is not terribly different from the other candidates, so again I don’t see how he really brings about a major change in this area. 

For good or ill, this formulation of Obama’s ability to appeal to the rest of the world, assuming that it is true, becomes a huge domestic liability for him, despite what his well-wishers and advocates of sane foreign policy everywhere might believe.  If “only Nixon” could go to China, Obama is actually the last person who could effectively make rational foreign policy towards Syria, Iran or any other country, because any concessions or moves made in their direction would be interpreted as showing that he is too comfortable with the rest of the world.  For goodness’ sake, just remember how easily vilified Kerry was for having French relatives, and then consider what Obama would be facing.

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5 Comments To "Face The Nations"

#1 Comment By Roach On November 2, 2007 @ 11:37 am

Since these same enemies try to kill Saudi kings with table cloths on their heads and Pervez Musharaff, this seems pretty much wishful thinking at best. The enemy, like all extremists concerned with ideological and religious purity, is quite adept at reading people out of the fold and condemning them as apostates. Indeed, it’s probably easier to swallow that we’re just a big, ignorant, cowboy-hat-wearing group that will never compromise and therefore need to be accomodated rather than being seen as apostates who also have the patina of respect for Islam.

#2 Comment By Zarathustra On November 2, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

“In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm.”

Prior to reading that passage, I was under this impression that a graduate of Magdalen College at Oxford and Harvard University’s doctoral philosophy program would have some basic knowledge of relatively elementary mathematics, such as what a [3] is (an operator) and what it is not (an increment, apparently to Sullivan). And silly me, was I ever wrong to think that.

Failing that, he could have simply looked it up; it would have cost him about thirty seconds, at most, to avoid such an embarrassing malapropism.

#3 Comment By Joules On November 2, 2007 @ 9:10 pm

Hmm…I don’t think logarithms are considered elementary by the general public. I wouldn’t recognize a logarithm if I saw one.

#4 Comment By MuteNostrilAgony On November 4, 2007 @ 12:11 pm

Perhaps Sully meant a “standard deviation.”

#5 Pingback By Eunomia » All That Substance On February 15, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

[…] Here is the full and correct quote from his DNC speech last year that I rephrased in another post: “We’ve had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we’ve had is a shortage of hope.”  The implication of that line is that plans are secondary or almost irrelevant, but, in fact, plans (and preferably good plans) are what distinguish the successful executive from the wistful hopemonger.  The point of this line of criticism is not that Obama has no ideas, but that his supporters do not embrace him because of his ideas, he doesn’t use his policy ideas to attract support and he doesn’t employ his considerable rhetorical skills to advance an agenda.  This is true to some extent of all successful candidates.  Part of this can be attributed to the sheer closeness of the Democratic candidates on policy questions, which makes differences in style and rhetoric seem more significant, but not most of it.  As I am reminded time and again, substantive policy campaigns fail, because most voters are not voting on policy, but are voting on sentiment, identity and almost anything else except policy.  But even by the standards of normal election year gasbaggery Obama stands out as exceptional in his preference for high-minded ”uplift” over specifics.  Yes, he gives policy speeches, as he has done on a number of topics, and some of us have read or heard them and then made critical remarks about those speeches, but on the whole that is not what Obama does.        […]