NEW YORK — Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic wrote a simple sentence recently that cut to the quick of this U.S. election: “What you think of a presidential candidate is in large measure determined by what you think of the world.”
In an eloquent column, he argued that “We are heading into an era of conflict.” From Waziristan to Gaza City the world of the next U.S. president will be one of foreboding. The threats, he suggested, were of a nature a neophyte senator called Barack Obama, who’s long on hope and short on hardness, is ill-prepared to confront.
I share the concern that the feel-good conciliation propelling the Obama bandwagon is light on fierceness. Change is great but constancy can be greater, especially when the threat is mortal. Readiness to talk to everyone, enemy dictators included, does not a foreign policy make.
When Obama says that in a globalized world the security of Americans is tied to the security of all people, he sounds pleasing. But this won’t help when U.S. security imperatives prove distinct, even inimical, to those of others, as one day they will.
I also find Obama’s commitment to a 16-month timetable for withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq rash: a free and stable Iraq is now inextricable from long-term U.S. security interests. How that can be squared with flicking the switch at Camp Victory in 2010 is a mystery to me and to most U.S. generals.
And yet, I disagree with Wieseltier. I disagree about the nature of the world the next president will face. Because of this, I believe Obama is the candidate best placed to grasp and exploit a transformative moment in global affairs.
Far from Wieseltier’s era of conflict, I see an era of tremendous global potential for advancement in which the jihadists — force-multiplying internet invective notwithstanding — are marginalized.
George W. Bush has shown a talent for burying progress and squandering opportunity (not least with Iran) in a torrent of vituperation. But even the Great Alienator can’t hide the fact we’re hardly in the Dark Ages.
As Bush’s war on terror has unfolded, one third of humanity in Asia has been busy joining and bolstering the world economy. Hundreds of millions of people, from the Mekong Delta to central China, have emerged from poverty. Huge problems remain, but the emergence of India and China does put the caves of Waziristan in perspective.
China holds a lot of U.S. debt, counters U.S. talk of freedom with talk of no-strings-attached “harmony,” and cares nothing for a nation’s politics if it can grab that nation’s riches (Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe).
But China is also tied at the hip to the United States, whose market it needs, and hell-bent on stability for the next half-century. Its cooperation with Washington on North Korea is more significant than its ideological confrontation.
In Africa, strong growth, spreading democracy, and growing regional cooperation have naturally ceded the headlines to doom in Darfur and Harare. But the progress is no less real for that.
Throughout the world, the access technology provides is connecting people in ways that make governments less relevant. Terrorists benefit from such networks. But the linking of a humanity in flux is of deeper historical significance. An era of conciliation is more persuasive to me than an era of conflict.
The fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination is increasingly portrayed as one between romantics and realists.
But a realistic view of Obama would be that he is best placed to seize and shape a new world of such possibilities. He has the youth, the global background, the ability to move people, and the demonstrated talent for reaching across lines of division, even those etched in black and white.
He would, as Andrew Sullivan has written, “rebrand” America. Wieseltier dismisses such rebranding. But even the Papacy was rebranded in our times, by a Pole, and Poles then precipitated the fall of the Soviet empire.
A romantic view of Clinton might be that she has the guts and savvy to free herself of her husband’s coterie of the world’s rich and famous, with its dubious deal-making from Kazakhstan to Colombia, and ensure that a White House with a president and ex-president in it projects U.S. renewal rather than the tawdrier sides of Clintonism.
I’m just not enough of a romantic to believe it.
Obama is the expression of a hybrid world whose promise outweighs its menace. He needs to recall what he once said: “No president should ever hesitate to use force unilaterally if necessary to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened.”
If he does, and a tough foreign policy team would help, hope and hardness will in time find a fecund balance confounding even to Iran’s mullahs.