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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 argumentstill puzzles me:

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.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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