US Policy, Obama, and The Hebrew Republic

Today, 9/11, seems the right day to ask how American foreign policy, and the Middle East conflict particularly, are playing out in the presidential campaign. What, if anything, can Barack Obama do to frame the conversation and, not coincidentally, get himself elected? 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may seem a side issue here. It is not. Obama himself made the case when he returned from the region in July that any US advance toward diplomatic normalization with Iran, or toward a regional alliance to help out inIraq, would be tied-up in large measure with Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is a matter of hearts and minds in the greater Arab world. 

Moreover, many of us have argued that, given the strength of the Israeli right (and the vendetta culture of Israelis and Palestinians more generally), we cannot expect any Israeli leader to rally the Israeli majority to an actual deal, that is, risk undermining national solidarity for a while--not unless an American administration and Europe together force the issue, offering a larger, plausible vision, boots on the ground, new investment, and so forth. 

Besides, rightist notions like “the global war on terror” have shown how Israel’s conflicts are consonant with America’s. The Israeli government’s ambivalence about ending its occupation, its default to military force, its tensions with Iran, etc., have seemed a kind of U.S. policy agenda in microcosm. And if America approaches its Middle East problems, as Obama insists it must, not with military preemption but with an emphasis on collective security, patient alliances, containment, the power of the global economy, and so forth, how can this not imply a verdict on Israeli occupation?

John McCain seems to think the status quo just needs more effort: he's unscrewed Brent Scowcroft from his brain and screwed in Joe Lieberman.  But has Obama really made the case that McCain is wrong? Yes and no, as Tom Friedman complained yesterday. This is a serious danger not only to Obama's prospects, but to a region that more Manichean talk and military stalemate can blow up.   

WHEN MCCAIN SPEAKS of Obama’s lack of experience (the main line of attack from an otherwise vulnerable campaign), this is code for something like the following argument: 

The world is dangerous, with fanatic forces challenging the US (and, by implication, the West) at every turn.  We need a Commander-in-Chief who will not flinch from using force, if necessary; someone whose toughness is clear to all, and so deters attack; someone who can tell right from wrong, and rally the right against the wrong; somebody who, if he had been president, would have run the Iraq war (and by implication, maybe even the Vietnam war) more successfully; somebody whose life experience makes him plausibly the custodian of American patriotism and so deserves our trust. 

Granted, this argument is vexingly simple-minded.  But the debate it invites is a permanent feature of the American landscape (and everybody’s psyche since high-school) and Obama can neither avoid it nor win it.  He can say, assertively, that Iraq was a strategic failure.  He can promise to refocus on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  He can say that he cares more about veterans, because he will really fund VA hospitals and a new GI Bill.  He can insist he is not really “young,” that he is older now than, for example, Kennedy was when he took office.  He can say, like Kennedy, that he represents a “new generation” against the old.  None of this is enough.  It is begging the question and playing into McCain’s hands.  

For if it is true that the world reduces to a place where outlaws need our posses, Obama cannot be a more plausible John Wayne than McCain.  Indeed, what President Kennedy meant by “new generation” in 1960 was vaguely like what McCain implies now about himself, that (unlike the skittish Nixon) Kennedy represented a generation of chastened war veterans who saw how the country must be mobilized around democratic principles, etc., to defeat the Soviets: a big, inchoate enemy with the worldwide capacity to threaten us.  (McCain has reassigned this role to Islamists; and Obama may focus on Al-Qaeda’s resurgence because of Iraq, or gamely try to refocus us on the economy.  But leave the foreign policy debate as it is stands, and any new terror attack between now and November could sweep McCain into the presidency.)    

Indeed, the Obama campaign must assume, if only as a thought experiment, that there will be a serious attack on America between now and the election, and that Obama will have offered ordinary citizens a strategy, a vision, that allows them to feel that they are working toward security in the face of the uncertainty attacks evoke.  

To win the election, in other words, Obama must convincingly win the foreign policy debate; and to do that he must change the terms of debate.  He must redefine the world’s challenges in a way that demands what he is uniquely equipped to become: a president with, not just the power to deter, but the power to attract.  He must, that is, show how terrorism is but a piece of a larger, complex challenge; that in the face of this challenge, we need the ability to 1) build out a system of collective security with other countries, 2) develop regional alliances in all parts of the world based on the common interest of regional players, Middle East, Asia, and Africa, 3) build global institutions for a patently global economy, and 4) win the hearts and minds of young people from Rio to Jakarta. 

And to get here, he can show that he is, say, picking up where President Kennedy left off in his famous American University speech, while acknowledging changes in the world people of Kennedy’s generation and temperament would have wished for but never lived to see. 

OBAMA MUST PROVE, in short, that he is the new face of this globalization.  He needs to show, in speech after speech, that America cannot simply aspire to securing our own national interest with military hegemony, but rather that America’s interests are inextricably bound with the new world system implied by the world “globalization”; that we can use our (still) unrivaled economic power, and indispensable military power, to turn America into the world’s leading global citizen. He must turn his crowd in Berlin from a queer embarrassment into the triumph it was.

Citizenship implies many things, and Kennedy actually listed several that can still be borrowed, from collective security, to nuclear disarmament, to increasing cooperation on the information infrastructure.  Obama might culminate with an agenda that carries high symbolic value, which could be initiated in the first 100 days.  Here are some ideas, other than those Obama has offered on Iraq: Strengthening and updating the UN Security Council, by adding permanent members like Germany and Brazil; ordering a radical reduction in nuclear stockpiles, and using projected savings over time to build high-speed rail in major air corridors now fouling the atmosphere; hosting a Kyoto-style conference on climate change, to be led by Al Gore; creating a commission on national service that will revive the Peace Corps. 

And, yes, Obama should announce that he will appoint a special negotiator to the Israel-Palestinian talks, perhaps Bill Clinton, and in any case announce that he sees the “Clinton Bridging Parameters” of January 2001 as the basis for American policy in reaching a compromise.        

McCain and Republicans will accuse him of ignoring people back home, or caring too much about what the world says.  Let them. Voters should see how he excites the world, and how he is raising hopes—and reviving the love of America—everywhere.