The Re-Branding of America


The interest in the candidacy of Barack Obama is at fever-pitch for a reason. The United States confronts a crisis in leadership, a paralysis not seen since the waning days of Jimmy Carter. Then the paralysis stemmed from almost pathological passivity; now it springs from almost pathological reliance on violence without order to impose values that can only be chosen. It is long past time to retire the idea that physical force alone - from bombs and bullets to torture - can solve the crisis of global Islamist terror, an ominously shifting climate, and the collapse of America's moral standing in the world. Neither extreme of Carter-style passivity nor Bush-style aggression works; neither reflects the core character of America. And yet America remains the indispensable nation. Without America's force, moral leadership, engagement and diplomacy, evil will win, as it is winning in Iraq and in so many places right now. The president, moreover, is partly responsible for the enemy's success. He has divided a country when it desperately needs uniting; he has misused military power; he has permanently stained the moral tradition of this country by the indelible evil of torture. And in all this, he has made the United States far weaker than it was seven years ago. We can and should debate how this came to be the case - whether tragedy or accident or deceit or incompetence or arrogance or some hideous, toxic combination of them all. But the first thing we have to acknowledge in looking for a new leader is the bankruptcy of the current one.

Obama's speech yesterday is his most detailed yet on foreign affairs. Read it. It is emphatically not isolationist; it is emphatically not against the use of military force when necessary; it is emphatically pro-military in its call for many more troops. On the critical issue of Iraq, Obama has taken a stand - a clear one for withdrawal, with the possibility of a strike-force over the horizon. This is a very difficult call, and the timing and execution of withdrawal will be dispositive. But one core strength of Obama's candidacy is that he got this war right when many of us got it wrong. He deserves more of a listening than many of us do. If his speech yesterday was any indication, there will be much to chew on. I'm sorry to see no commitment to a carbon tax; I'm unsure of whether diplomacy can or will work with Pyongyang and Tehran. We will all have to listen and watch Obama closely these next few months in weighing his candidacy against others'.

But this much we can already say: Obama brings something no one else does to this moment. By replacing one of the most globally despised and domestically divisive presidents in American history with a young leader half-Kansan and half-Kenyan, America would be saying something to the world: Bush-Cheney is not who we are. America is not what it has come to appear to be. This country is among the most culturally and racially and religiously diverse on the planet. America has long been a powerful and vital beacon for human rights - not, as recently, the avatar of torture, rendition and executive tyranny. The simple existence of Obama as a new president in a new century would in itself enhance America's soft power immeasurably, just as a clear decision to leave Iraq would provide much greater leverage for diplomacy and military force in a whole variety of new ways. Obama would mean the rebranding of America, after a disastrous eight years. His international heritage, his racial journey, his middle name: these are assets for this country, not liabilities.

This is the reason for his ascendancy. This is what the American people sense and the world awaits. This is what the Islamists fear. That last alone is reason to feel hope. Money quote:

We must [lead] not in the spirit of a patron, but the spirit of a partner – a partner that is mindful of its own imperfections. Extending an outstretched hand to these states must ultimately be more than just a matter of expedience or even charity. It must be about recognizing the inherent equality and worth of all people. And it’s about showing the world that America stands for something – that we can still lead...

[I]f the next President can restore the American people's trust – if they know that he or she is acting with their best interests at heart, with prudence and wisdom and some measure of humility – then I believe the American people will be ready to see America lead again.

They will be ready to show the world that we are not a country that ships prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far off countries. That we are not a country that runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there or what they are charged with. That we are not a country which preaches compassion and justice to others while we allow bodies to float down the streets of a major American city.

That is not who we are.

(Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty.)