Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What "Obama" Means Around the World

Last November in "Obama the One?" I posted the following, discussing one aspect of Barack Obama's appeal: the rehabilitation it would do for America's image abroad.

In that post I quoted from an article in the Dec.2007 issue of The Atlantic, "Why Obama Matters," by Andrew Sullivan:

"Consider this hypothetical," Sullivan says. "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."

Sullivan continued, "the fundamental point of his candidacy is that it is happening now. In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events.... At a time when America’s estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable."

Come now June 2008, now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee after a testing primary battle, and we're starting to see the prescience of these words.

In today's New York Times, in his OpEd "Obama on the Nile," Thomas Friedman comments from Egypt: "Egyptians are amazed, excited and agog that America might elect a black man whose father’s family was of Muslim heritage. They don’t really understand Obama’s family tree, but what they do know is that if America — despite being attacked by Muslim militants on 9/11 — were to elect as its president some guy with the middle name “Hussein,” it would mark a sea change in America-Muslim world relations....

"It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Democrats’ nomination of Obama as their candidate for president has done more to improve America’s image abroad — an image dented by the Iraq war, President Bush’s invocation of a post-9/11 “crusade,” Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and the xenophobic opposition to Dubai Ports World managing U.S. harbors — than the entire Bush public diplomacy effort for seven years."

Friedman relates, "I just had dinner at a Nile-side restaurant with two Egyptian officials and a businessman, and one of them quoted one of his children as asking: 'Could something like this ever happen in Egypt?' And the answer from everyone at the table was, of course, 'no.' It couldn’t happen anywhere in this region. Could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in a hundred years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams. Here, the past always buries the future, not the other way around.

"These Egyptian officials were particularly excited about Obama’s nomination because it might mean that being labeled a 'pro-American' reformer is no longer an insult here, as it has been in recent years. As one U.S. diplomat put it to me: Obama’s demeanor suggests to foreigners that he would not only listen to what they have to say but might even take it into account. They anticipate that a U.S. president who spent part of his life looking at America from the outside in — as John McCain did while a P.O.W. in Vietnam — will be much more attuned to global trends."

This is all fascinating - and very heartening - in a larger sense as well, in that it demonstrates that America still "has it" (or at least has the potential for "it") - i.e., the ability to behave in ways that give hope to freedom-loving people around the world; or, as Friedman puts it, "it reveals is how much many foreigners, after all the acrimony of the Bush years, still hunger for the 'idea of America' — this open, optimistic, and, indeed, revolutionary, place so radically different from their own societies."

This "idea of America" has existed from the time of the nation's origins. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated in 1844, "America is the country of the future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations."

Friedman concludes, "That’s the America that got swallowed by the war on terrorism. And it’s the America that many people want back. I have no idea whether Obama will win in November. Whether he does or doesn’t, though, the mere fact of his nomination has done something very important. We’ve surprised ourselves and surprised the world and, in so doing, reminded everyone that we are still a country of new beginnings."

There's hope, there's hope.