OPINION: A bridge to the world; democratic renewal; world sick of Bush

The new face of America

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.

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.

It is worth recalling the key passages of the speech Obama gave in Chicago on October 2, 2002, five months before the war: “I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war … I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” [complete article]

See also, For the Democrats: Barack Obama (Boston Globe editorial).

America’s constitution produces a pure democracy Britain will never have

The late Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, would lecture Americans on the power of their democracy “to take the world to the brink of disaster” and at the last minute haul it back. The subject might be the Depression, wartime isolationism, McCarthyism, nuclear confrontation and now a concocted “war on terror”. Whatever it was, said Schlesinger, “the great strength of democracy is its capacity for self-correction”. America reaches the right answer only after trying all the wrong ones.

At a time when America is the acknowledged world superpower, such a rollercoaster beneath its leadership can easily be misunderstood. In its paranoid reaction to the events of 2001, America under George W Bush appeared reckless and imperialist, a bully and a “preemptive aggressor”.

It has fought indecisive and incompetent wars against weak countries that America cannot help and can only plunge into poverty and misery. To the wider world, it seems to crave enemies not friends, losing sight of Kennedy’s inaugural admonition that “civility is not a sign of weakness”.

The neoconservative denizens of Washington have been reduced to polluting their intelligence, suspending habeas corpus and debating the uses of torture. They seem unable to engage with other world powers on such matters as trade reform, international law and the future of the United Nations.

This is why America’s friends abroad have felt more despair this past five years than in the previous 50. To turn a phrase once applied to Britain by the American diplomatist Dean Acheson, America has acquired an empire but not found a role.

Yet there is to be an election. As those friends also know, there are as many Americas as there are Americans. Any visitor to that country can sense a yearning for a change, as can any reader of its polls or consumer of its media. This is represented by a sign over Phoenix, Arizona, counting down the days to the end of the Bush presidency. It is represented by the continued buoyancy of the Barack Obama campaign. America seems desperate to give itself at least the option of a black president, of the idealism of a born-again Kennedy.

That Obama’s candidature can be contemplated in a land that has twice voted for Bush and Dick Cheney is the measure of how drastically America’s constitution allows it to cleanse its politics and grasp at something new. [complete article]

The world gets the better of Bush

Last week was the week, and yesterday was the day, when the world finally showed that it was terminally fed up with the simple-minded, short-sighted and self-serving outlook of George Bush. The moment came not, as it well might have done, amid the dust and bloody debris of Iraq or the torture and state terrorism of Guantanamo Bay, but in Indonesia’s lush and lovely Island of the Gods. And, appropriately, it came over climate change – the issue on which the “toxic Texan” first showed that he was going to put his ideological instincts and oil-soaked obstinacy over the interests of the rest of the world and of future generations.

The mood had been building all week at the negotiations in Bali on a replacement to the present arrangements under the Kyoto Protocol which run out in 2012. For months the United States, and President Bush himself, had been insisting that it would not block progress. Spin-doctors were dispatched to assert, ludicrously, not only that the President was as committed as anyone to avoiding catastrophic global warming, but that the man who had spent years trying to destroy any attempt to tackle it had always really been on the side of the environmental angels. But once his hard-faced negotiators took their seats in the steamy conference centre at the Nusa Dua resort the pretence slipped away. They blocked virtually every constructive proposal put on the table, refusing any suggestion of concrete action by the US, while insisting that other countries do more and more. Ever since Bush first rejected – and set out to kill – the Kyoto Protocol, he had cited as his main objection its exclusion of big developing nations such as China and India. More recently he has indicated that the US would move if they took the first step. Sure enough, they came to Bali ready to take action on their own emissions – and still the US refused to budge.

It is simply not done in international negotiations for one country to single out another for criticism; it’s the equivalent of calling someone a liar in the House of Commons. But from early last week other delegations were publicly, unprecedentedly and explicitly blaming the US for the lack of progress. Worse, they were beginning to point the finger at President Bush himself, suggesting that things would improve once he was gone. That is the kind of humiliation reserved for such international pariahs as Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein. But even they were never subjected to the treatment that America received yesterday morning. When it tried, yet again, to sabotage agreement the representatives of the other 187 governments broke into boos and hisses. When Papua New Guinea told the US to “get out of the way”, they cheered. [complete article]

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