Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My Country & Obama

Obama also makes me feel good about being an American. Because of his face, because of his life story, because of his name, because of his understanding of the world. A respected friend who is living in London wrote me this last month: Being overseas, we are the scorn of the world.

I had some sense of this, from February, Andrew Sullivan wrote:
I don't think many Americans have fully absorbed yet what the Bush administration has done to America's soft power abroad, to the moral reputation of America, to the respect that many around the world once had for America's democratic institutions, even if they differed from U.S foreign policy. Bush's torture and detention policies, his cringe-inducing diplomacy, his proud lack of interest in other cultures and societies has deeply weakened this country's international clout. Electing a half-African president, with Hussein as a middle name, who attended school in a Muslim country: it's almost a p.r. agent's dream for America. It would instantly give this country a fresh start in the world after the disaster of the Bush-Cheney years. It isn't enough: Obama will need skills and determination in the terror war. But soft power helps; and Obama would put it on steroids. As for youth, Tony Blair was 43 when he became prime minister; Obama would be 48. What's the problem?
I agree with Sullivan. He also wrote about this soft power and Obama in his widely wide article Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters.
What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. 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.

And so Andrew Sullivan has peppered his popular blog, The Daily Dish, with stories from around the world. I remember one from last year - I think it was on his blog - I can't exactly recall, but it probably was - a story about an American walking into a restaurant in Dubai or one of the other small countries on the Arabian peninsula (again I can't remember which one), who when he entered wearing an Obama t-shirt was welcomed with a standing ovation.

Here's another Sullivan post from February:

My wife and I are serving overseas in Yemen and I wanted to share a quick anecdote with you about Obama-buzz here in Sanaa. While getting my haircut several weeks ago, I was surprised when my barber Mohammed drifted from his usual aspersions about George Bush to suddenly inquire about Barack Obama. My Arabic is fairly limited, so it took me some time to understand that Mohammed and the other Yemeni patrons had seen Obama during an appearance with Oprah on Al-Jazeera. All of them agreed that of the people seeking to become President, Obama offered the only redemptive option for America.

After my haircut was nearing an end - a nearly 60 minute process - Mohammed said that "if a black man can become President, then maybe the story of America isn't a lie after all."

And another overseas story from Sullivan:

I am an American who is a graduate student in the UK, and I have been congratulated by people from around the world over the past couple of days for the Obama nomination. Strangers hear my accent, and want to talk about Obama. One British person said, "America didn't become the nation it did with guns and tanks; it became the nation it did with ideas. An Obama presidency represents everything that America has told the world about itself in the past century--and what the rest of the world wanted to expect out of America. The idea that you talk before acting, the idea that you make friends, not enemies, and the idea that anything is possible."

Another Italian told me, "Obama will cause my country to fall in love with America again."

Soft power?

NPR's Talk of the Nation did a great overview last week, which you can hear here. Featured are interviews with Gary Younge, columnist for The Guardian newspaper in London, Masha Lipman, political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center and Rami Khouri, editor-at-large for The Daily Star in Beirut.

For an overview of world reaction (compiled by the BCC) click here. Uganda stands out:
Uganda's government-owned paper New Vision says the country should learn from US democracy, both in its electoral process and how it treats immigrants: "In Uganda, the manner in which political parties select candidates often isn't transparent and this is why these candidates are often out of touch with the aspirations of the electorate...African countries must accommodate social minorities, as well as immigrants, no matter their race or colour. America is a country of immigrants and it is a great multiracial nation."
From The Times of India (hat tip, again Sullivan)
But here's a trivial observation that suggests why Obama, because of his eclectic and unusual upbringing, may be different: He's the only American leader who has been heard to pronounce Gandhi and Pakistan correctly — just like it's pronounced in the subcontinent (Gaan-dhi, not Gain-dee; Paak-isthaan, not Pack-is-tan). In other conversations, Obama has also referred to Indian success in technology fields, and drawn comparisons between his father (who came to the US "without money, but with a student visa and a determination to succeed") and the experiences of Indian immigrants.

From France via Euractiv.com:

In France, Segolene Royal, President Sarkozy's rival in the presidential elections last year, stated that "Obama embodies the America of today and tomorrow". As for Sarkozy's camp, the head of his UMP party Patrick Devedjian called Obama's candidacy "a very beautiful image of America".
Pakistan via the New York Times:

“It should bring a good change in relations with Pakistan” should he win the presidency, said Munaway Akhtar, a prominent lawyer specializing in international arbitration in the capital, Islamabad. “Pakistan has always been friendly to the United States, but the people have never benefited, the rulers have always benefited. Hopefully, that would change with Obama.”

Wamiq Zuberi, the editor of The Business Recorder, the country’s biggest business-oriented newspaper, said he believed Pakistanis were pleased. “Everyone is in fact impressed with the historical moment, that it is the first time an African-American has won the nomination of a party.”

Lebanon (with a mention of Iran and Al Jazeera poll) via YaLibnan.com The same report, exactly, appeared in the LA Times.

"Obama's America on the doorstep of history," said a headline on the front page of As Safir here in Lebanon.

Obama remains intensely popular throughout the world. According to a poll released this week by the pan-Arab Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel, more than half of those interviewed in 22 countries preferred Obama over Clinton or Republican John McCain, who was the least recognized and least preferred presidential candidate.

Even in stridently anti-American Iran, state-controlled television showed video of Obama making a speech behind a lectern bearing a placard reading "Change."

"It's a matter of the heart. It's a matter of affiliation," said Radwan Abdullah, a professor of international relations at the University of Jordan in Amman. "He's a minority African American from the Third World. He was the underdog. People identify with his type."

And Frank Rich observed in One Historic Night, Two Americas:

When the world gets a firsthand look at the new America Mr. Obama offers as an alternative to Mr. McCain’s truculent stay-the-course, the public pandemonium may make J.F.K.’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” visit to the Berlin Wall look like a warm-up act.

When I see reports about this, about how Obama's nomination has altered the view of my country, I am moved and also begin to believe.

If you're living abroad, here is Obama's official site for you.

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