Monday, February 18, 2008

Obama and the Arabs

Start with this interesting observation from Tamara Cofman Wittes, who is attending the 5th annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha. She finds the Muslim participants notably free of rancour against the Americans, compared to past years. She gives some reasons:

But changes in the region and in U.S. policy also help explain the slackening of the resentment that has accompanied our past years’ discussions on America’s role in the Muslim Middle East. Violence in Iraq is down, there’s new (if fragile) hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and pushy rhetoric from the White House, once directed at autocratic Arab allies, is now reserved for Iran, which Americans and Arabs both perceive as threatening. A cynical colleague of mine here argued that the positive tone from the regional leaders at the conference reflects age-old realities of international politics: when America is weak, he said, everyone loves to beat up on us—but when America is stronger, everyone wants to be on our side. That’s great—as long as the current lull in Iraqi violence lasts.

If the American policy in Iraq works the way it's supposed to, it has the desired effect on the region. Which means there is this much more accrued evidence the basic neo-con theory was not flawed. Which is worth noting because it might get overlooked in a lot of commentary on her post, which likely will dash off to the next observation: "The most powerful explanation for the change is evident in the overwhelming fact that all anyone at this conference really wants to talk about is Barack Obama."

A friend from the Gulf tells me her young relative was so excited about the Democratic candidate that he tried to donate money over the Internet, as he’d heard so many young Americans were doing. Then he found out he had to be a U.S. citizen to do so. Another young woman, visiting from next-door Saudi Arabia, said that all her friends in Riyadh are “for Obama.” The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia, certainly speaks to Muslims abroad.

But more important is just the prospect of a refreshing shift in the the breeze off the Potomac. More than the changes in the region, it seems to be anticipated changes in Washington that are drawing the eyes of my Arab counterparts and giving the conference its unusually forward-looking tone. We’ll see how long the honeymoon lasts!

Seems fair enough. Most people everywhere are looking forward to a change in the relationship between the White House and the world. I'm looking forward to the opportunities it presents for breaking up old logjams and testing new ideas or methods. And to the usual anti-Americans being on their heels for while till they settle in on a new set of twisted narratives of What Is Really Happening.

Combined with the "symbolism" of Obama's middle name. Belmont Club confirms the power of this:

There are two ironies here. The first is that while Barack Obama has gone out of his way to say that he is 'not a Muslim', in a wider sense the Muslims have taken him into their bosom. An acquaintance, writing from Jakarta says the same feeling is pretty strong over there too. While in America he projects the image of rallying America he simultaneously conveys the impression of being on the side of the Arab too.

Which wisely does not suggest Obama does this intentionally. He didn't choose his middle name, and he's been accused by some strident people of trying to hide his middle name, so it would be odd if he were to be accused of flaunting it at the same time.

But it's also possible to wade into this issue from the other direction and drag all your wrong ideas with you and screw it up.

American foreign policy for the past seven years has demonstrated a hostility towards the interests of numerous Arab and Muslim nations, and an indifference to the concerns and disagreements of many allies in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and elsewhere. [ed. -- and before that it was the Golden Age and Everybody loved us. Osama planned those attacks all through the '90s because he knew we were going to turn mean after Bush was going to steal the election.]

I predict many bloggers who harbor fears of billions of Muslims and millions of Arabs because of a few thousand extremists from those populations will point to this article as proof that Barack Obama is somehow sympathetic to terrorists. [ed. -- nice to get your rant on against a hypothetical enemy that you can't even be bothered to go out and identify to gauge its importance. Or is it your custom to be driven by reaction to a few extremists from those populations?] That they have zero evidence doesn’t matter. If a moderate, non-threatening Muslim or Arab citizen likes Obama, that means he’s evil and dangerous.

With logic like that, it’s hard to see how such people ever gain the courage to crawl out from under their beds to face an American society built largely from some of the world’s more authoritarian, imperialist and brawling societies: Germany, England, Ireland and the descendants of Spanish conquerors. [ed.--What? I mean, this is likely to be risible nonsense, but first you have to figure out what he's trying to say. Can you? I can't. Maybe it's "Don't you dare identify our civilizational rivals by their worst traits, but don't dare do anything else to yourself?" In which case, other progressives say it much better.]

Obama’s candidacy offers powerful symbolism to the world. His father was a Harvard-educated African. His stepfather took him to live in Asia’s most Muslim nation for a couple of years when he was a very young boy. That same Indonesia received a great amount of aid after one of the globe’s worst national disasters in recorded human history, producing a fresh impression that our country had more than war and weapons for Muslims. But the initial aid offer that came from our current president after that record tsunami was relatively meager until private US citizens stood up to lead the way (I believe the actor, Sandra Bullock, led the way with an astounding million dollar donation).

[ed. -- there's revisionist history, and then there's bad revisionist history. This is the latter. The outpouring from private citizens and non-governmental charities came before the bureaucratic commitment to international aid agencies. Within hours, the donation meter at had hit $15 million. Which was a lot more than a Hollywood B-lister's tax deduction. A lot of Americans don't wait for the government to do something. As for what the government did, the biggest contribution it made was the Navy's work in feeding the survivors and protecting them in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Which saved more lives than all the U.N. bureaucrats in all the world. Must have something to do with being descended from Irish imperialists.]

So Obama, just by being born and living as a normal boy for his first seven or eight years, represents something different to two great continents, through nothing he initiated at all. On the other hand, you can’t fault him for any of that. His symbolism is what it is. [ed.--Thank the gods for the Internet. No trees died to preserve that sentence.]

And on it goes. Wherein Obama is the salvation of mankind -- and he doesn't even get around to Obama's ethnic appeal to white guys because Obama is halfway a white guy! Wherein electing Obama will "motivate young potential anti-American warriors to consider non-violent alternatives" and offer "an alternative kind of hope to the post-death glory promised by fanatical jihadists." Would-be jihadists! You, too, can study hard and go to Harvard Law!

But don't tune out before you reach the precious rumination on the Great Ladder of Victimhood:

As I’ve observed through long life experience that there’s no way to resolve the question of who’s suffered the most bias in the world (Jews? Blacks and browns? Women? Numerous tribes who were conquered and colonialized? Christians? Muslims? Buddhists?) that will ever satisfy other groups who’ve suffered, the world, to advance civilization, must demonstrate that such discriminations must yield, one by one, to more enlightened views.

There is no ‘right’ order to accomplish that in. The most important thing to remember is that we must move forward in a world where many struggle to move us backward. And that forward momentum advances freedom, cooperation, ideals, hope and greater civilization than anything else we can work together to do.

So Obama has a high-degree-of-inspiring-the-world," and Hillary has a "medium-degre-of-inspiring-the-world." McCain? What did you think he was going to say? "I’m certain Senator McCain’s team is the least well-rounded of the three, reliant on too much use of the military to try and achieve our nation’s best interests." Like those aircraft carrier groups that got to Sumatra within hours of the tsunami with powerful water-desalination capabilities and working helicopters and tons of food and top-notch medical care. While the U.N. heads were still trying to coordinate their first meeting and reserve all the rooms in the 5-star hotels of Jakarta. What would Obama have sent? Autographed glossy photos of himself?

And I think most Americans, of every race, religion and political philosophy needs to recognize that and vote accordingly, not because of what some entrenched politician or pundit tells them, but because of what has become visible to billions across the globe and to tens of millions of Americans.

The security and advance of our nation and world depend on our capacity to do so, rather than get stuck into rigid ways of thinking that have made our progress uncertain and slow and at times, regressive.

Lesson 1: Be wary of people who want you to live for the word "progress" but won't define it for you. Lesson 2: Be wary of people whose thinking includes ideas like "regressive progress." Lesson 3: Don't listen to people to tell you to vote because of your fear of the world, because the "security" of our "nation" depends on it. Lesson 4: Why not just skip the middle men and let the rest of the world actually pick the American president, instead of parsing blog posts from Doha to guess what they want us to do?