Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Post-Cold War Candidacy

Gregory Scoblete (generally anti-Iraq War) asks, Will Obama Really Withdraw from Iraq? Which also might be titled, "Why Can't Barack be More Like Chomsky?"

The only way for Obama to truly deliver on his pledge to "end the war" in Iraq is to sketch out a new American compact with the Middle East - one that breaks fairly radically with the conventions of the past. This is not the same as promising bargaining instead of bombs and bluster, or arguing, as Obama has frequently done, that our resources are more urgently needed elsewhere. Rather, it is about recasting the debate over Iraq and the Middle East from what is the "responsible" thing to do to a debate about what we are responsible for.

He nonetheless asks a lot of good questions, which many Obama-skeptics on the right have not quite framed as well as he does.

To believe that Obama is serious about ending America's commitment to Iraq is to assume either that the progress Iraq has made to date is irreversible (which almost no one believes) or that he has placed the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of other regional interests. After all, it is impossible to maintain America's traditional sense of responsibility over events in the Middle East and simultaneously remove large numbers of troops from Iraq, come what may.

And this, which certainly is on target:

For many, Obama's reluctance to challenge the current principles of America's involvement in the Middle East is a reassuring "move to the center." To others, it is a reminder of how narrow the debate on foreign policy really is. Rather than debate the ends of American policy, we debate the means.

Followed by this provocative idea:

Such a narrow debate is one of the unintended consequences of America's Cold War victory. A broad, bi-partisan agreement on the nature of U.S. interests and the threat posed to them by the Soviet Union was vital - it allowed the United States to consistently contain communism even as presidential administrations (and thus tactics) changed.

Much like this consensus, our interests in the Middle East are largely derived from the Cold War era, when American power-balancing was necessary to reduce Soviet influence. Rather than adjust those interests when the threat from global communism disappeared, Washington remained content with the status quo. Today, our presidential candidates debate the utility of their policies in advancing agreed upon interests. They debate within the status quo.

I'll have to mull that over some more, since I recognize that I have a reflexive tendency to cast contemporary problems in terms of the Cold War, therefore I don't trust my snap judgments. It is undeniable that the Cold War severely warped America, and that our minds have not yet stopped flowing through the channels it carved in them. It's also true that U.S. journalism's fixation with the present tense overlooks even recent historical influences. That "journalism" includes blogs. So the Cold War is often the obvious thing left out in discussions of modern America and its policies.

Scoblete thus suggests Obama "fashion himself as a 'post Cold War' candidate, willing to realign America's foreign policy in response to the world as we find it today." One problem with that is that the Cold War warped the rest of the world, too. The modern geopolitical landscape is a post-Cold War battlefield, littered with rusting artillery and unexploded mines. Saddam was a bit of both.

His sunny expectation that Middle Eastern governments, left to themselves, would act in rational economic self-interest, that (he is quoting other writers here) "Middle-Eastern governments have even more incentive than do consuming states to worry about the security of oil production facilities, ports, and shipping lanes," seems overly hopeful. Didn't Iraq and Iran in the 1980s give the lie to that?

Scoblete attempts to sketch how Obama could take that path and dovetail it not with the anti-war movement, but with mainstream American politics, including conservative pathways. Good reading for those who like to be challenged.

[Hat tip, The Glittering Eye]

Somewhat along the same lines, the indispensable Brit David Aaronovitch reminds his fellow Brits, Eventually, we will all hate Obama too.

George W. Bush, of course, represents a particular kind of offence to European sensibilities. He blew out Kyoto, instead of pretending to care about it and then not implementing it, which is what our hypocrisies require. He took no exquisite pains to make us feel consulted. He invaded Iraq in the name of freedom and then somehow allowed torturers to photograph each other in the fallen dictator's house of tortures. He is not going to run Franklin Roosevelt a close race for nomination as the second greatest president of the US.

But even if he had been a half-Chinese ballet-loving Francophone, he would have been hated by some who should have loved him, for there isn't an American president since Eisenhower who hasn't ended up, at some point or other, being depicted by the world's cartoonists as a cowboy astride a phallic missile. It happened to Bill Clinton when he bombed Iraq; it will happen to Mr Obama when his reinforced forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan mistake a meeting of tribal elders for an unwise gathering of Taleban and al-Qaeda. Then the new president (or, if McCain, the old president) will be the target of that mandarin Anglo-French conceit that our superior colonialism somehow gives us the standing to critique the Yank's naive and inferior imperialism.

Often those who express their tiresome anti-Americanism will suggest, as do some of the more disingenuous anti-Zionists with regard to anti-Semitism - that they, of course, are not anti-American, and that no one really is. But, coming as I do from an Anti-American tradition that wasn't afraid to proclaim itself, I think I know where the corpses are interred. For example, the current production of Bernstein's Candide at the English National Opera is a classic of elite anti-Americanism, in which we are invited to laugh at the philistine invocation of “Democracy, the American Way and McDonald's”. The laughter that accompanied this feeble satire showed our proper understanding that we, the audience, had a proper concept of democracy, and would never soil ourselves with an Egg McMuffin.

At which point it might be pertinent to note that Egg McMuffins are selling like hotcakes in Europe right now.

Europe is now McDonald's largest region by revenues, despite having roughly one-quarter the number of outlets as the US. Last year, revenues from company stores and royalties from franchisees topped $8.9 billion in Europe, compared with $7.9 billion in the US. It's a trend that analysts expect to continue when the world's biggest restaurant group reports second-quarter results on July 23. West expects US sales to rise by 3.4 percent, vs. 9 percent for Europe (19 percent if you include the foreign currency impact). This year, he reckons, McDonald's, the most American of brands, will generate 55 percent of its earnings outside the US.

McDonalds now serves more than 10 million customers a day in Europe. But there's a secret: They do it by being just a little less like McDonalds, and a little more like Europe:

McDonald's kept its trademark golden arches logo in Europe but got rid of the red accompanying it. Instead, restaurants feature a warm burgundy color. The pointy roofs are being phased out and replaced by simple olive green facades, and the bright neon lights in the restaurants were dimmed.

"French fries and cheeseburgers remain the best-selling items," the article notes, but even that might change:

"A huge chunk of the company's success comes from giving locals the kind of foods they like, instead of force-feeding American menu items to them," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant research firm.

There's porridge in Britain and pasta freshly cooked to order in Italy. In France, there's a smaller-sized burger on a ciabatta roll slathered with a sophisticated mustard sauce — and served with a glass of wine.

The goal, you see, is not to bulldoze the world's cultures into one generic, bland mash. It's not even to force Romanian peasants to love McNuggets. It's to separate people from their money in a way that makes them feel like they're getting a good deal. And for all we know, measured in their terms, they are.

That's a hard game to beat us at. European philosophical approaches have attempted it for decades, generally with miserable results:

A group of young communist militants had proudly gone from France to Moscow in 1930. They enrolled at the Lenin School for foreign Communists and dutifully imbibed the texts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin; they also undertook training in handling guns and conducting clandestine correspondence. The idea was that the French Communist Party should acquire a cadre of able potential leaders for the political struggles ahead. The curriculum also involved some weeks of work in a Russian factory. The French delegation had come to the USSR with an assumption about the effortless superiority of Russia’s workers as a revolutionary vanguard, so the sloppiness of the Soviet labor force came as a shock. Russian workers, unlike the French workers they knew intimately, lacked conscientiousness: They turned up late and did as little work as they could get away with, and they were uninterested in outsiders suggesting ways to improve efficiency. Waldeck Rochet, a young Frenchman, said to his friend Henri Barbé: “Were we to tell the French workers what we’re seeing here, they’d throw cooked apples at us. But we’re caught in a trap and compelled to stay.”