Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Obama's World


And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – 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. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.


Most of what you read and hear today, and in the coming days and weeks, will be puff and nonsense. It is as well, when contemplating Barack Obama's victory oration - so oddly reminiscent of an Oscar acceptance speech - to remember how hollow and ultimately meaningless such occasions often are. Tony Blair in 1997 incarnated similar yearnings, a similar belief in a new dawn: and look what happened to that. For now, Obama represents the triumph of hope over experience. It remains to be seen whether or not he also represents the triumph of style over substance. I doubt if anyone - even the man himself - knows whether he will be a great president, a disappointingly conventional president, or a disastrous one. Yet even this cynic, who saw Blair coming a mile off, is full of optimism this morning.

Like any leadership, Obama's will be shaped by events; and the landscape which he surveys, once the detritus of the victory parties has been vacuumed up, looks bleak indeed. His lofty ideals - and I've no doubt that they are lofty - will be circumscribed as rarely before. In 2000, had he been old enough, he might have built a fairer, less polarised America. In 2008 he will require every ounce of his leadership potential just to keep the show on the road.

Some extraordinary rubbish has been spoken and is still being spoken by starry-eyed European lefties - such as Justin Webb of the BBC, who I heard this morning speculating that Obama's victory will see an end to what he called the centre-right orientation of US politics of the last 40 years. Most Democrats are still considerably to the right of Britain's Conservatives, at least when viewed in terms of actual policies, and are likely to remain so. Nor is there any evidence that Barack Obama either wants, or would be capable of bringing about, such a revolution. America's first black president will in all probability be about as radical as The Cosby Show. His rhetoric has been avowedly centrist. Even universal healthcare, something Europeans take for granted as part of civilised life, may prove to be beyond him in the current economic climate. As for abolishing capital punishment, forget it.

The right of the Republican party - the Christian conservatives, the neo-Cons who were behind disasters of the Bush-Cheney years - has been defeated, not narrowly, but convincingly. What this signifies is not a leftward shift but a return to the status quo: the pragmatism of the Clinton years or, indeed, of the older George Bush. Don't forget that the citizens of avowedly liberal California, even as they cast their votes in record numbers for Obama, also voted to outlaw gay marriage.

There was a telling moment on this morning's Today programme on Radio 4, when Jim Naughtie turned to the conservative-leaning historian Niall Ferguson and said, "of course you're disappointed." And of course Ferguson wasn't disappointed - as Naughtie should have been aware, since he was already on record as looking forward to an Obama victory. There are many natural conservatives, both within and especially outside the United States who aren't disappointed either. On the other hand, I suspect that there are many in the international left, who have been absurdly ecstatic at the prospect of President Barack Obama, who are likely to be very disappointed indeed.

Forget the soaring rhetoric, which in any event hasn't been that soaring or even particularly rhetorical. Those who saw the impassioned crowds and heard the repetitive chants of Yes We Can and thought they detected the germ of a populist personality cult, or who paid too close attention to the sermonising of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, or read too many evangelical websites, have been looking in the wrong place. Listen to what Obama actually said, rather than the response it received, and you will find it surprisingly conventional: aspirational, serious-minded, rather short on details, traditionally American in its constant invocation of hopes and dreams. It's the sort of language that Martin Luther King traded in; but then so did Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton was a master of this species of rhetoric - unfortunately, for various reasons, he was seldom able to translate it into reality. But what does it amount to? We need change. We need hope. We need to come together as a nation around a common cause. We need to believe. Yes We Can.

If that is all there is to Barack Obama, then the great hopes he has engendered will evaporate as the reality of a bankrupt economy and dwindling international power hits home. Fortunately, his measured words in his victory speech - like the almost supernatural calmness with which he has comported himself throughout the campaign - suggest that the personal qualities which so many Americans and others have detected in him are no illusion. The symbolism of his victory is, of course, immense; but symbolism, however meaningful (and it is) is nothing without substance to back it up. He will need both skill and luck to negotiate the tough times ahead.

Of all the styles and titles of an American president, the most resonant but also the most problematic is an informal one: Leader of the Free World. America's president, like it or not (and many don't) is ours too. George W. Bush has too often looked and sounded not like the Free World's leader, but as its enemy. Constantly invoking freedom, he presided over a regime of domestic repression and overseas aggression and calamity. Where Theodore Roosevelt spoke of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, Bush shouted loudly and used his stick so often it shattered like Wotan's spear. The Bush years started badly, with an election openly and disgracefully stolen in Florida; and while the attacks of 9/11 attracted worldwide sympathy and solidarity, even at the time there were worryingly many who saw the destruction of the Twin Towers as some sort of come-uppance. This year's financial crisis, with its foreboding sense of economic power sliding inexorably from America's grasp, has likewise been greeted with ill-disguised glee by the country's many jealous and small-minded enemies.

Of course, there were many for whom the Bush presidency was good news. The totalitarian government of China prospered on a rich diet of American indebtedness. The Iranians under the deeply weird and possibly unbalanced Ahmadinejad exploited the disasters of Anglo-American policy in Iraq to build up an influence unknown since the days of Shah Abbas in the early 17th century. Putin's Russia used the shield of Bush's war on terror to do far worse things with virtual impunity. Even the Taliban have survived. The bankers who destroyed (for the moment) the West's prosperity have been well looked after by Bush and Cheney. Tony Blair has already grown rich. By and large, though, the world is an immeasurably nastier place than it was eight years ago, and for that the incumbent has a considerable share of the blame.

I wonder what would have been the reaction if Al Qaeda had struck while Obama was in the White House. The shock and outrage would have been as great, but the sense of fellowship would have been far more acute. There would have been revulsion against Bin Laden in the Middle East, and fewer recruits to the cause. I would venture to suggest that the attacks might not have taken place at all, if only because the terrorist leaders would have been intimidated by the American president's cherished global status.

Barack Obama is the man that the free world (and also much of the world that yearns to be free) wanted as its leader, and it'll be amusing to watch European leaders falling over themselves in the stampede to praise and touch him. Expect to hear much less talk in Europe - even in France - of a widening Atlantic, less resentment of American leadership, less enthusiasm for cosying up to China or Russia. This morning's sense of optimism and delight will give way soon enough to pragmatism and reality, but the aura of a reinvigorated sense of American destiny and moral leadership will surely remain.

Already we see the delicious spectacle of American democracy being lauded by the Guardian. "So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world," declares the newspaper that has caricatured the Americans more crudely than most during the past several decades. "Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America's hope and, in no small way, ours too." Savour them indeed; savour their source still more. No doubt the Grauniad, along with the BBC, will return to its default Americaphobia before Obama's first term is over. But here as elsewhere Obama's racial origin will come to his aid; the Guardian will find it harder to attack a black president, even if he is American.

A few months ago, China presented its manifesto for the leadership of the 21st century. Its calling card, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, was spectacular, overwhelming, awe-inspiring, monstrous. Last night the USA hit back. If offered us the spectacle, first of all, of long queues of voters, peaceful, self-organising, patient, choreographed by nothing more than their individual commitment to the democratic process. And then a man, standing on a stage, enunciating and embodying dreams. He spoke of change: but there is one change that no-one should want to see, and that is a change in global leadership from the free to the unfree world; a world which gives up on the ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, opting instead for the Chinese offer of prosperity bought at the cost of personal enslavement. The American brand has been so tarnished during the Bush years that for many around the world - even in Europe - that alternative began to seem attractive. I for one hope that Barack Obama can bring about enough real change for the most important things to stay the same.

22 comments:

Edwin said...

Yes, the truth is he is the conservative candidate!

God luck to him, good luck to us all.

passer by said...

Yep you said everything I would want or wish to say, I think you nailed the issue.

Lets hope Bam lives up to all those hopes? I wish him and American well.

One spanner in the works to bring us all down to earth, one word that I think will matter more than many, PAKISTAN.

passer by said...

I do have one point of contest.

One week before 9/11 when AQ assassinated the Northern Alliance leader as a thank you present to the Taliban, OBL gave an interview and said quote "American is a weak horse"

That mindset that lead to 9/11 did not come about because of Bush, and if American had not reacted to this assumption, I am sure its status would have further diminished.

Do you think today that any nation messing about with terrorists in its midst, think that they will not be attacked by the United States?

passer by said...

And another :0)

"The Bush years started badly, with an election openly and disgracefully stolen in Florida"

I am sorry that is just not the case, every news organization who organized a recount using freedom of information all showed Bush to have won.

Yes Gore won the popular vote, as did Hilary in the primaries, as did the Torys here in the UK in 1974, but they all lost the election.

In fact we elect representatives to elect presidents and prime ministers, we don't directly elect anyone.

The Heresiarch said...

Possibly. The US is now widely seen as overstretched and over-committed.

My sense of AQ is that they staked almost everything they had on a single throw of the dice. Bin Laden believed that the Arab world would rise as one against the infidels and against their own governments. I'm not certain AQ wouldn't have attacked the USA under Obama: but he looks less like a colonialist oppressor, so they might well have calculated the great uprising they were expecting wouldn't happen. 9/11 was a complete disaster for the terrorists. You're right about Pakistan, though.

The Heresiarch said...

Where did you get that information. The recounts went Gore's way. And that's even before you get to the people who were wrongly barred from voting after Jeb Bush and Katharine Harris had thousands of black voters struck off the rolls. That election was rigged.

passer by said...

Sorry I forgot the link for the NYT

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/12/politics/12VOTE.html?ex=1226034000&en=5b239e0338b26cb3&ei=5070


AQ attacked in Kenya in 1997 under Clinton, which he tried to kill OBL with cruise missiles, and of course there was the attack on USS Cole before 9/11.

Clinton and Blair also went to war in Kosovo to defend Muslims, only 3 years previously. SO if that does not get the Muslim population on your side, I don't know what would? not even Bam.

AQ got incredibly lucky on 9/11, they nearly did it against the Eiffel tower in Paris a couple of years previous, and they planned to strike London the same day on 9/11. Indian intelligence caught them and jailed them.

I cannot see how the Muslim anti-western, anti-secular mind set which was and is still wide spread, would in anyway have been any different with a more hopeful approach.

passer by said...

I think you have been had by the anti-American (previously), anti-conservative (always) Guardian :-)

The NYT article is the much more credible.

lost causes said...

In terms of "the popular vote" vs. the actual outcome, the British political class love the first-past-the-post system because it cements their power and keeps out single-issue trouble makers. They justify this declaring the importance of regional representation. But what justification can there possibly be for electoral colleges?

The Heresiarch said...

Passer-by: a quote from the NYT report you linked to:

But the consortium, looking at a broader group of rejected ballots than those covered in the court decisions, 175,010 in all, found that Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount of all the rejected ballots. ..The findings indicate that Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory if he had pursued in court a course like the one he publicly advocated when he called on the state to "count all the votes."

So, if they had counted all the votes, Gore would have won. How does that support your argument?

valdemar said...

You're right, H - it's politics as usual. But the free world has an intelligent man at the helm, something that has been lacking since 2000. And of course things will go horribly wrong in various places, and in unexpected ways. But I suspect Prez O has the brains to handle crises and not just sit there reading kids a book about a goat. And he won't be appointing any slacker golfing buddies to run major federal organisations, because he has no slacker golfing buddies. Result!

Oh, and would you like me to write something for you about the odd survival of the ghost story? It is, after all, that time of year.

passer by said...

"So, if they had counted all the votes, Gore would have won. How does that support your argument?"

H. would is not the same as could, and in the totality of evidence would have had a poor case.

Bush won.

The Heresiarch said...

Bush won, I suppose, in the sense that he has spent 8 years in the WhiteHouse destroying his country and its reputation in the world. I would have happily supported John McCain in 2000, when he was chewed up in the primaries by the same Bush machine that went on to rig the election. I hope you're happy.

Sounds terrific, Valdemar. Email me.

passer by said...

You cannot judge the Bush presidency without the back drop of 9/11.

He came to power (im sure the debates with gore are on youtube) as an american isolationist, he did a 180 degree turn not of his choosing. US reputation had been destroyed in the 90s, we just did not realise it at the time, we where celebrating beating the soviet union instead.

As you say it is events that matter not ideology.

AND NO I am not happy about it, it would be nice if everyone kept themselves to themselves but its not how the world works.

Take today for instance, Russia welcomes Barack Obama with deployment of nuclear-capable missiles and in a 90 minute state address by putins puppet which fails to mention Bam at all. This is the real world.

I suggest you read nassim talebs book on black swans, he shares, poppers and hayeks view that as the world becomes more interconnected the more unpredictable it will become.

My guess is the Bush presidency will be seen as a product of the new world, 9/11, Iraq, Credit crunch, environment, are the first of many issues bigger than all the governments put together.

I am not sure how to deal with it, but "blame bush" ect just does not answer th questions.

passer by said...

On a lighter note, I think this picture of Dubya sums up the above points pretty well.

W and baby!

The Heresiarch said...

Nice picture. We'll miss Sarah Palin too, though we haven't known her that long.

Without giving credence to the conspiracy theorists, much of the Bush foreign policy agenda followed the Project for a New American Century, the Neo-conservative manifesto. Without 9/11, the Neocons might not have been given the freedom that they were, but with the Cheney/Rumsfeld combination dominating the first Bush cabinet they would certainly have tried.

Of course Bush isn't responsible for the troubles that befell America or the world. However, Clinton bequeathed him a budget surplus which he then squandered, which is making the current situation worse - just as Gordon Brown squandered the strong economy he was bequeathed by Major and Clarke. But worst of all, Bush pissed everyone outside the US off royally. BEFORE 9/11. And also after.

There's an interesting vignette in John Kamphfner's "Blair's Wars". After 9/11, NATO passed a resolution invoking article 5. "The Germans even promised to rush through a tax increase to help pay for measures to improve global security. THe American response - or lack of it- left Robertson and the whole Nato establishment flaggergasted. Not a single word of thanks was received. "An immense reservoir of solidarity was wasted" he recalled."

passer by said...

If Bush was an ideologue as charged(neocon ect) then he would not have had to make two big Uturns in his presidency. Isolationist to uber-internationist and free marketeer to interventionist.

Gore would have invaded Afghanistan, over time Saddam would have to be taken out (he was a serial trouble maker) to try and get an Israeli settlement, to try and remove some of the Muslims worlds poisonous views and attitudes towards the west. AND I would add the credit crunch could well have been bigger under Gore.

Fannie and Freddie the nuclear detonators in the financial bombs are the babies of the democratic party and it was Clinton who strengthened the CRA that lead to the position of giving loans to poor people. (as Rory Bremner pointed out on Sunday night on C4)

So the surplus is not an issue, it would quite likely have happened anyway, Greenspan would have still switched the money taps on after 9/11 even if Gore was president.

Many of us see things coming. Many saw the credit bubble, Many of us think the situation in Pakistan has profound implications for the security of the West. (nukes falling into Islamists hands) I am sure everything will be done to avoid large scale military action, but as in Iraq, these things have a life of their own, its took 13 years for the USA to enforce the provisions of the 1991 gulf war ceasefire, and that was 5 years after Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation act, before anyone had every heard of a NeoCon.

My grandfather was on of the liberators of the Belsen concentration camp, he suffered terrible mental health problems for it all his life, and died at an early age but Heresirch someone has eventually to go after the bad guys, or as Orwell put it

"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

the world especially Europe does not understand this, it believes in a new world order where dialogue always works, it does not, history says it does not.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Liberation_Act

Emiy K said...

Thank you for this post. I like to spend my lunches reading Heresy Corner. Even though (or perhaps because) it doesn't really represent my political views, I find it a refreshing corner of sanity in my daily routine.

As a Californian, I'm still in a bit of shock, expecting any moment all this will be snatched away from us. As US pundits on both sides go to extremes of hope and despair, I find myself a bit afraid to get too excited. I believe in Obama's abilities to lead the country in a better direction. I have believed this since I started following his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

But I find now that it is scary to hope, because I've been disappointed so many times by our government.

This celebratory but measured post gave me all sorts of warm, fuzzy feelings. It took away some of that apprehension that my hopes for a rational and productive Obama administration might go awry.

A name instead said...

Countering received opinions and incoherent thought? Not this time, buddy. Mind telling me how Karl Rove knew that it was going to come down to 300 votes in Dade, and arranged for those particular ballot boxes to be stuffed? It was the Democrats who tried to steal the 2000 election, and projected their criminality and lack of ethics onto the Republicans, WHO WON FAIR AND SQUARE. I omit the obscene personal abuse, but don't think you don't merit it.

therealalekid said...

By the way BBC News have just interviewed Alesha Dixon about Barack Obama becoming president. Hard hitting stuff.
-----------------------------------A minor point though the Republicans tried to impeach Clinton after the Legwinsky affair and the stain on the dress. If 9/11 happened under a Democratic President then my gu feeling is that they would do so again. That maybe too cynical though. I just can't see the conservative press saying that they should rally behind a President Gore/Obama.

The Heresiarch said...

On the other hand, Obama's splashing out on a 30 minute prime-time broadcast attracted almost universal congratulation. If it had been McCain, he would no doubt have been accused of trying to buy the election.

JPT said...

How left wing is Obama?
He's in favour of the death penalty - that's how left wing!