Obama and the American idea

Posted in United States | 10-Dec-07 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks as Oprah Winfrey reacts at a rally in Manchester, N.H. Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007.

NEW YORK: I asked Senator Barack Obama if he's tough enough for a dangerous world. Sometimes the Democratic candidate treads so carefully, and looks so vulnerable to a gust of wind, the question of whether his legal mind can get lethal arises.

"Yes, I'm tough enough," he responded during a half-hour conversation. "What I've always found is people who talk about how tough they are aren't the tough ones. I'm less interested in beating my chest and rattling my saber and more in making decisions that build a safer and more secure world."

Obama, speaking less than a month before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus on Jan. 3, continued: "We can and should lead the world, but we have to apply wisdom and judgment. Part of our capacity to lead is linked to our capacity to show restraint."

That was striking: an enduring belief in U.S. leadership coupled with a commitment to, as he also put it, acting "with a sense of humility." Skepticism about the American idea and American global stewardship has grown fast during the Bush years.

There are many reasons: the failures in Iraq; the abyss between U.S. principle and practice (Abu Ghraib); the rise of other nations (China); startling displays of American incoherence (Iran); economic vulnerability (the dollar as a declining store of value); and resentments stirred by any near hegemonic power.

All this has led some to conclude the world would be better off if America slunk home. As Joyce Carol Oates put it in The Atlantic: "How heartily sick the world has grown, in the first seven years of the 21st century, of the American idea!" It has become a "cruel joke."

If a global survey were taken, that might prove to be a minority opinion, but I doubt it.

Still, Obama stands by the universality of the American proposition: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness under a constitutional government of limited powers. "I believe in American exceptionalism," he told me, but not one based on "our military prowess or our economic dominance."

Rather, he insisted, "our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals. We are at our best when we are speaking in a voice that captures the aspirations of people across the globe."

It is dangerous, of course, to speak of being exceptional; people tend to resent it. If the United States said its ambition was to be normal, few would object. But Obama is right to retain a belief in America's capacity to inspire; it remains unique. And I still see no credible alternative for stability to the far-flung American garrisons that act as the offsetting power to old rivalries in Asia and Europe.

Pax Americana, being neither perfect nor peaceful, is not popular. Only its absence would convince its detractors of its worth.

Obama's main Democratic rivals, Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards, have joined him in calling for a shift from fear, militarism and unilateralism toward interaction, including with enemies. But Obama's global engagement seems visceral in unique ways.

"If, as president, I travel to a poor country to talk to leaders there, they will know I have a grandmother in a small village in Africa without running water, devastated by malaria and AIDS," he said. "What that allows me to do is talk honestly not only about our need to help them, but about poor countries' obligation to help themselves. There are cousins of mine in Kenya who can't get a job without paying an exorbitant bribe to some mid-level functionary. I can talk about that."

Referring to the time he spent in Indonesia, Obama said: "I have lived in the most populous Muslim country in the world, had relatives who practiced Islam. I am a Christian, but I can say I understand your world view, although I may not agree with how Islam has evolved. I can speak forcefully about the need for Muslim countries to reconcile themselves to modernity in ways they have failed to do."

Al Qaeda attacked the West in Kenya, Bali and New York. Obama's father was Kenyan. The senator was schooled in Indonesia. He attended college in New York. The parallels are strange. They can also be a source of the toughness married to intuition for which he still seeks complete expression.

Nowhere in American history has the gulf between ideals and sordid practice been greater than on questions of race. It is precisely the gulf between high principle - not least habeas corpus - and unprincipled actions that has done most damage to America's image in recent years. Once again, Obama appears to bridge and reconcile.

"We can't entirely remake the world," he told me. "What we can do is lead by example."

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