Politics & Policy

Rebranding America?

Obamania dreaming.

New Hampshire has gone and done what New Hampshire has gone and done, but it won’t be long before Obamania picks up speed again. As it does, so will the idea, compelling, thrilling, and thoroughly misleading, that an election victory by the junior senator from Illinois will win over that large portion of the world that has, so runs the story, been alienated by the wicked George W. Bush, but which still, even now, wants to love America.

Writing over at “The First Post,” just before the Iowa vote, the distinguished British journalist, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, a conservative of sorts, had this to say:

In many parts of the world, the United States is now regarded as “the evil empire”. This is entirely President Bush’s fault. Both his actions and his rhetoric have given the impression of a superpower bent on world dominion. If this had happened in any other country it would require decades, if not centuries, to undo this damage. In the case of America, however, it can be put to rights almost at one, or at most two, strokes. Stroke number one would be for the Democrats, starting this week in Iowa, to nominate Barack Obama as their presidential candidate, and stroke number two, for the electors to put him into the White House with a landslide majority. By these two actions America would be rebranded. That the world’s shield and conscience should have a young and handsome black senator, touched with nobility, waiting in the wings at this particular juncture is little short of a miracle. It is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Obama fan Andrew Sullivan, another conservative of sorts, made a similar point last year, arguing as follows:

What does [Obama] offer? First and foremost: his face. It could be an effective potential rebranding of the United States. Such a rebranding 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. Consider this hypothetical scenario. 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 exponentially. 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 demonisation of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about America in ways no words can.

Sullivan, understandably enough, began pushing this theme with renewed vigor after Obama’s Iowa win, blogging last week that “the international response to Obama will shock many Americans, because it will be so massive” (and by implication) positive. To underline the point, he excerpted this passage from a piece by a South African journalist: “Damn, I love Americans. Just when you’ve written them off as hopeless, as a nation in decline, they turn around and do something extraordinary, which tells you why the United States of America is still the greatest nation on earth.”

There is, of course, no doubt that the symbolism of an Obama victory this November would resonate. Even the U.K.’s Guardian, not normally a hotbed of support for Uncle Sam,was enchanted by the remarkable prospect that there there could be a black man in the White House, not serving the drinks, but sitting in the Oval Office itself.” It would, naturally, have been too much for someone writing for the Guardian to concede that, to take just one obvious example, Colin Powell did rather more than serve drinks in the course of his visits to the Oval Office. Nevertheless the broader sense of what that editorialist is talking about is clear, and it seems to support the case being made by Andrew Sullivan and Sir Peregrine.

The problem is that, while (rightly or wrongly, for good reasons and bad) there will be genuine relief worldwide at the departure of George W. Bush from that office where Condoleezza Rice was so often to be seen pouring martinis, Miller Lites, and alcohol-free beer, it will be rapidly eclipsed by the return of politics-as-usual. An Obama election victory would certainly give the celebrations an additional boost, as may some of the policies he might choose to take up, but the belief that it would pave the way (at least beyond these shores) for a lasting re-branding of America, is mistaken. There may be many reasons to vote for Obama (most of which, I admit, escape me), but this ought not to be one of them.

To grasp why, it’s necessary to understand that anti-Americanism is something that long predates George W. Bush and it will long outlast him. Yes, Dubya’s foreign policy, his domestic agenda, his environmental stance, even his very demeanor, may have riled up America’s critics abroad and antagonized many of its former friends, but the underlying problem, as a President Obama would be forced to recognize, lies elsewhere. The new president might pull the troops out of Iraq, he might sign the U.S. up for some carbon voodoo, he might prove to be more congenial company at a Turtle Bay cocktail party, but, in the wider scheme of things, none of this will make a great deal of difference, none of it will be enough.

Anti-Americanism is rancid, perennial, barely rational (and sometimes not even that), rooted in mankind’s ancestral primate psychology, in jealousy and in fear, and made all the more potent by the cold calculations of global politics, as well, it must be said, as this nation’s own faults, faults made painfully visible by its position, its power, and its promise. Critiques of America have varied at different times, and in different places, and they have frequently been mutually contradictory, but what, all too often, they share at their core is a resentment at the success of a country that has the ability to make everybody else feel, well, just a little bit threatened, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes not. The result has led to absurdities too numerous to list here, although the grotesque spectacle presented by those millions across the globe who claimed, decade after decade, after decade, to find “moral equivalence” between the Soviet Union and the United States is not a bad place to start.

To suggest that a phenomenon on this scale will simply evaporate when confronted with a black president is to ignore the lessons of history, and recent history at that. Just ask the NAACP, an organization legitimately appalled by some of the commentary and cartoons that appeared in the Arab media at the time of a visit by another powerful, successful and charismatic African-American, Secretary Rice, to the Middle East.

Symbolism alone will not, therefore, do the trick, a point that was taken up by Iranian-born Reza Aslan in the Washington Post.

As someone who once was that young Muslim boy everyone seems to be imagining (albeit in Iran rather than Egypt), I’ll let you in on a secret: He could not care less who the president of the United States is. He is totally unconcerned with whatever barriers a black (or female, for that matter) president would be breaking. He couldn’t name three U.S. presidents if he tried. He cares only about one thing: what the United States will do. That boy is angry at the United States not because its presidents have all been white. He is angry because of Washington’s unconditional support for Israel; because the United States has more than 150,000 troops in Iraq; because the United States gives the dictator of his country some $2 billion a year in aid, the vast majority of which goes toward supporting a police state. He is angry at the United States because he thinks it has hegemony over almost every aspect of his world.

Andrew Sullivan is too shrewd not to realize this, and, in his earlier piece (perhaps significantly it was written before the euphoria of the Iowa victory), he was careful to highlight the potential importance of what Obama might do in Iraq as a key element in any re-branding of America:

The other obvious advantage that Obama has is his record on the Iraq war. He is the only significant candidate to have opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, engaging America’s estranged allies and damping down regional violence. Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never had suspicious motives towards Iraq, has no interest in occupying it indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful consequences of long-term occupation.

Reza Aslan went further:

The next president will have to try to build a successful, economically viable Palestinian state while protecting the safety and sovereignty of Israel. He or she will have to slowly and responsibly withdraw forces from Iraq without allowing the country to implode. He or she will have to bring Iraq’s neighbors, Syria and Iran, to the negotiating table while simultaneously reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, keeping Syria out of Lebanon, reassuring Washington’s Sunni Arab allies that they have not been abandoned, coaxing Russia into becoming part of the solution (rather than part of the problem) in the region, saving an independent and democratic Afghanistan from the resurgent Taliban, preparing for an inevitable succession of leadership in Saudi Arabia, persuading China to play a more constructive role in the Middle East and keeping a nuclear-armed Pakistan from self-destructing in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. That is how the post-Bush “war on terror” must be handled. Not by “re-branding” the mess George W. Bush has made, but by actually fixing it.

You can agree or disagree with the particulars of these prescriptions and diagnoses, but it’s difficult to deny that they do much to rebut suggestions that the symbolism of an Obama victory will in itself be enough to make a significant difference. But if symbolism is not enough, what will be?

Let’s just say the list is a long one. That’s not to argue that the United States cannot, and should not, take steps to put in place a smarter foreign policy designed to win it more friends abroad, while at the same time pursuing a robust defense of the national interest. It can, and it should. I find myself these days, I guess, in a small minority to think so, but I’d argue that a Republican president is best placed to do it. The trouble is that such changes would, I reckon, only alter perceptions of America at the margins. Yes, it’s probably true that, reflecting the different priorities of his or her party, a future Democratic president could do more to ingratiate this country with what is laughably known as the international community, but that can likely only go so far. The pathologies of anti-Americanism run too deep.

To even have a chance of curing them, a President Obama would have to transform America so profoundly that it would no longer be the America in which he had succeeded so gloriously. And which Americans other than the self-hating, the masochistic, or the clinically disturbed, would want to vote for that?

Not Obama, I suspect. I hope.

–Andrew Stuttaford is an NRO Contributing Editor.

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