On Obama and Tempering Skepticism

A small portrait of the translator

November 18, 2008 @ 22:48 UTC

Written by

Egypt, Lebanon
Barack Obama
Government & Politics

-By Karim El Assir

One of the most compelling contrasts offered to us throughout this past election cycle has been the manner in which an exuberant optimism has been met with cautious skepticism. In a debate held in Maastricht’s ravishing Selexyz bookshop on the night of the election, Danny Merideth, a political advisor to the U.S ambassador to the Netherlands, suggested the tempering of expectations held of an Obama administration. Similarly, other members of the debate panel were quick to point to the difficulties that an Obama administration would face in pursuing its ambitious agenda. The restrictions Barack Obama will face are certainly true of any incoming president; a newly-elected chief executive must deal with their predecessors’ budget, is likely to honor the military and trade agreements already established, and must deal with the challenges posed by the international system, in this case two wars and a commitment to fighting terrorism. Add to that the mounting financial crisis, and it may be easy to understand why reality could weaken the winds powering the sails of an incoming administration that has charted a path paved with hope and headed toward significant change.

It would be prudent of us, however, to step back and cautiously monitor the doubts we express of next four years, in lieu of the history that was made on November the 4th; a history that is likely to litter the pages of history books written for generations to come. Watching the reaction to Barack Obama’s victory that night, both here in Maastricht and around the globe, I was reminded of another culturally significant movement that reshaped the image of the United States both within and outside the nation. In 1969, a concert featuring the days’ most prominent rock and roll artists took place in a small suburb of New York. Woodstock, as the event would come to be known, was as significant for the unification of a generation as the peace and love which it exuded. In the only documentary produced on the event, its director Michael Wadleigh managed to capture images of a youth compelled to unity, inspired by potential and motivated by the questionable actions of its government. One can only imagine the narrative with which history will portray Obama’s victory, as well as the screaming crowds that followed his march to the White House and celebrated his arrival.

The projection of unity in this election, spanning a globe that has grown weary of the exploits of the world’s unipolar, may have far superseded that of the Woodstock generation. This unity is likely to stand distinct in its historicity, and may well prove to be a potent currency with which an Obama administration will act to meet the global challenges of the next four years. What follows are four reasons why this election is probable to affect significant change on the world’s future, and why in addition to tempering our expectations and hopes, we may want to constrain our skepticism.

The Significance of Ethnicity/Race

The shade of Barack Obama’s skin, while tempting to write-off as insignificant to the way he will run the United States in his upcoming term, is significant, and not only because of the racial progress it is symbolic of. While writings in the vein of Christopher Hitchens’ and William Kristol’s have emerged throughout the election cycle suggesting the lack of importance a candidate’s black skin will have toward his administration’s policies and programs, I’d like to suggest otherwise. It was not Obama’s proposals on pursuing militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, nor his suggestion that an increased effort was required of the U.S’ allies in Europe to stabilize Afghanistan that prompted the support of millions from Gaza to Nairobi.

And while his international support cannot be solely explained away as stemming from his racial and ethnic identity, it has certainly proved a forceful magnet in attracting positive views of the United States. At a time when the favorability of the U.S, according to several Pew poll results, rarely exceeds the mark of 50% among developing nations, the election of an African American has reframed the narrative of the American dream. Obama’s election has strengthened the image of U.S democracy around the world, and has conjured up the imaginations of those people who live with an unfortunate reality of the lack of opportunity for success of this magnitude in their own countries. This has manifested itself into statements by heads of state praising the triumph of ethnic and racial tolerance; Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai suggested Obama’s election ushered in a “new era” in which politics would transcend race, color and ethnicity.

Although this mode of thinking may demonstrate the failure “to emancipate (ourselves) from the original categories of identity that acted as a fetter upon clear thought,” as Hitchens has noted, it is equally representative of the emotive response much of the world still holds toward racial and ethnic identity, and the important role it has and will play in changing the perceptions of the United States for the better.

The World Was Watching, and Obama Spoke To Them

Every election in modern history has been watched by the world, with differing degrees of interest. With the advent satellite television networks, the internet, and other tools of global communication, billions of people have been able to garner a nuanced appreciation of the U.S election process. While this writer may be too young to appreciate the attention paid to elections past, it should be safe to say that the support Obama has received overseas has been both impressive and unprecedented.

For almost two full years, the international community has been privy to an election held on the grandest and arguably most important stage of them all. Foreign newspapers, television newscasts, and websites were filled with coverage and opinion on the election from the moment Obama announced his run to his last speech declaring his victory. People outside the U.S expressed their views, hopes, and criticisms of the candidates; what’s significant is that a candidate spoke back to them.

Several of Obama’s speeches were sprinkled with messages to the world. After losing three of the first four primaries to Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama alluded to both the tone of his opponent’s campaign and the international attention surrounding it when he said “The world is paying attention to how we conduct ourselves. What will we they see? What will we tell them? What will we show them?” Similarly, on the night of his victory in the general election, in a speech given to over 125,000 people in attendance, Obama addressed his audience overseas:

“And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores… our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down — we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security — we support you.”

An International America?

Not to exaggerate the influence he will have or the transformative effect he’ll wield on the way U.S power is used, but the possibility for a more international America is at hand. That is not to suggest that the preeminence of American national security will fade, or that strategic interests will suddenly cease to be the primary motivator for U.S action around the globe. For all the talk of the Bush military doctrine and the wisdom of nation-building, much of what we’re likely to see in the next four years will be a continuation of the past eight. To his credit, Obama’s campaign for the presidency has managed to ooze exceptionalism without making his foreign spectators queasy.

However, amidst all that will stay the same, Obama is very likely to leave an indelible mark on American foreign policy. Of all the candidacies we’ve been exposed to throughout this election, his has been by far the most forward-thinking. Of particular interest to this writer is his counter-terrorism plan, audaciously named his “Plan to Defeat Terrorism”. And while that won’t happen, Obama’s plan stands out for the manner in which it details the role that communication will play in this endeavor. In an effort to shore up support for extremists, the plan mentions the importance of speaking directly to Muslim audiences, and training diplomats in media skills and foreign languages in order to provide an American presence on foreign satellite networks. As part of a large scale public diplomacy effort, Obama’s plan aims to build new “America Houses” that would serve as cultural centers in regions of the world where anti-Americanism is so fervent it may play a role in driving people toward extremist groups. The plan also makes mention of providing alternative options for education in countries where Islamic schooling, prone to the absorption of extremist thought, tends to dominate. Finally, he plans to double spending on U.S foreign aid by the end of his first term, setting a goal of $50 billion dollars.

Obama is Symbolic of a New Generation

‘The torch has been passed’ may have earned its official status as a cliché following election night, however it speaks to a large measure of truth. Barack Obama is very much a child of a ‘flattened globe’, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Friedman. Born to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, having lived in Indonesia for four years as a child, and mingling almost exclusively with foreign students throughout his undergraduate years, Obama’s upbringing is one that forms a holistic, inclusive perspective on the world. Refreshing as that sounds, that perspective will serve not only as a pallet-cleanser to the last eight years; it has and will continue to draw more international attention to what he says and does.

It is conceivable that an international lobby may prove more capable of exerting some measure of influence on the presidency in the coming 4 years than it has been able to in the past eight. If that is the case, it will in large part be due to Obama’s time spent overseas. Why this is not a perennial requirement for the self-proclaimed leaders of the free world is beyond my understanding. I must say, however, I will be looking forward to an American president who can both relate and speak effectively to his generation and the generation to follow, as evidenced by a campaign that seemed to possess more awareness of the world around it than that of his opponent.

While the prospects for an Obama presidency may arguably be overrated, the next four years are likely to effect significant change on American leadership for reasons other than the departure of President Bush. We are likely to see America’s image reframed to appeal to the world, with a leader at its helm more willing to consider our appeals toward him. And although the chants of “yes we can”, the multi-colored Obama t-shirts adulating the man, and the prospects for disappointment may give cause to those cautioning the lowering of expectations, we should temper our skepticism to appreciate the change that has already come, and the promise it holds for our futures.

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