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Nothing Human Is Alien To Me

Even though it is distracting me from the far more important writing of the day (discussing the ins and outs of Battlestar Galactica: Razor), this weekend item (via Sullivan) from Michael Kinsley caught my attention, since it falls under the general category of Obama Supporters Who Are Intent On Making Obama Lose.  It is a fascinating phenomenon–it’s like an entire coterie of people who would have advised Michael Dukakis to wear the military helmet from the tank ad all the time.  Once more, we are presented with Obama as Globalised Leader or, as Kinsley puts it, World Man:

Obama also has valuable experience apart from elective office, and he also has to be careful about how he uses it. This is his experience as a black man in America and as what you might call a “world man” — Kenyan father, American mother, four formative years living in Indonesia, more years in the ethnic stew of Hawaii, middle name of Hussein, and so on — in an increasingly globalized world. Our current president had barely been outside the country when he was elected. His efforts to make up for this through repeated proclamations of pal-ship with every foreign leader who parades through Washington have been an embarrassment. Obama’s upbringing would serve us well if he were president, both in the understanding he would bring to issues of America’s role in the world (the term “foreign policy” sounds increasingly anachronistic) and in terms of how the world views America. Clinton mocks Obama’s claims that four years growing up in Indonesia constitute useful world-affairs experience. But they do.

Now, I have already said what I think of Obama’s claims in this area, especially when he chooses to describe those “formative” years as his “strongest experience in foreign relations.”  By this logic, if we want a really top-notch foreign policy “America’s role in the world-understanding” President, we should select our candidates for President strictly from the world of American expatriates, since they presumably have even more such experience overseas (and probably more relevant expertise at that).    Kinsley has the distinction of being one of the few prominent Obama apologists advancing this line of argument who is not originally from another country.  That in itself is telling–most of the people who see Obama’s global appeal are themselves looking at Obama with something like an outsider’s perspective, and so assume that Obama’s associations with the rest of the world are among his political virtues, rather than understanding that these represent some of his greatest political hurdles with the American electorate.  They think, understandably enough, that his experience abroad is valuable because they believe their experience is valuable (and it may well be in many cases, but it is far from clear that this applies to Obama with respect to the specific position he is seeking).  Here I think they make the mistake of assuming that having lived abroad for a few years and having a rather exotic family tree make for sound foreign policy judgement, when they simply provide at best just one piece of an intricate puzzle. 

At bottom, the urge to cast Obama as a man of the world, as globalisation incarnate, reveals the heart of the problem with Obama and Obamania: Obama is good because he is the antithesis of whatever Bush is (except that he really isn’t the antithesis).  If Bush made stubborn “unilateralism” his trademark, Obama is the essence of paralysing consensus-building.  He frames his policies in terms of how they differ with Bush, but frequently they serve as a strange mirror image of the Decider’s most utopian fantasies, and he seems to reach policy views based to a huge extent on how they diverge from Bush’s policies, almost without regard for the merit of his own proposal.  If Bush won’t talk to X regime, Obama will; if Bush has ruled something out, he will rule it in, and vice versa.  Obama has the odds in his favour–Bush is wrong so often that taking the exact opposite position from him will yield many of the right answers–but he gives the impression of being entirely reactive.  This is why he frequently responds to critiques of his foreign policy ideas by huffing and puffing about the poor judgement of others, as if their follies on Iraq make his crazy remarks about Pakistan responsible.  Goodness knows it is tempting to assume that literally everything the President has done or will do is wrong, but the entire Obama campaign has taken on the appearance of an extended knee-jerk reaction.  Now his supporters express their enthusiasm for an anti-Bush who will undo the damage that the incurious Mr. Bush has wrought…based on the reality that Obama has been outside the country quite a lot, while Bush had not been, and on Obama’s mixed and international heritage as opposed to Bush’s dull WASP pedigree.  It is the ultimate replacement of substance with style: you can apparently take or leave Obama’s ideas, but his biography and symbolism (the “candidate of life experience,” as Kinsley terms it) are supposed to make us exalt him.  Sorry, it’s been tried before, and John McCain lost, and he is losing again.  (One might also quibble with the strange view that John McCain’s time as a POW gives him some unique moral authority, considering that he has never seen an aggressive war he didn’t want to support.)

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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