Archive for June 1st, 2008

Obama and Racism

Today Hillary Clinton won Puerto Rico, but the decision yesterday by the DNC assures that barring an unforeseen disaster, Barack Obama will be the nominee. Also yesterday, Barack Obama left his church, Trinty, in Chicago. He did so, he says, in part to protect the church, though everyone knows that the firey content of that, like many black churches, gives opponents fodder for attack. People who don’t understand the importance of race in America want a black man who is black in skin color only, but culturally seems white. The reality of our society, however, is that it’s almost impossible for that to happen. This means racism will play a real role in the 2008 election.

John McCain is a very weak candidate. He has been committing gaffe after gaffe on his so-called signature issues: Iraq and foreign policy. He messed up the number of soldiers in Iraq, mixed up Shi’ite and Sunni, didn’t know that Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful man in Iran (it’s Supreme Leader Khamanei), didn’t realize that al qaeda is enemies with Hezbollah and Iran, and made the absurd comment that if we left Iraq, al qaeda would take over. Given a lot of Republicans are lukewarm to McCain anyway, that, combined with the strong Obama organizational efforts, suggest a huge win for the Democrats in November.

However, I suspect that McCain may pull out a squeaker. Obama has one weakness that, even in 21st century America, trumps all his strengths: he is black. Racism in the US isn’t as overt as in the past. Whites, not truly understanding the impact of slavery and segregation on the structure of society, often whine about affirmative action and make outlandish comparisons between an emphasis on building a sense of African American identity by saying things like “what if they were talking about pride in being white” or something like that. Those with the most power – white males like myself – are too often oblivious to the privileges we have because of our status in this society.

So to be blunt: I expect this to be an ugly campaign, one where the attacks on Obama so far – mostly attempts at guilt by association – pale in comparison of what’s to come. It will be intended to play overtly to the racist aspect of American society, though the McCain campaign will be careful not to be directly involved and will in fact self-righteously criticize such tactics.

There will be two types of appeal to racism. One will simply be to try to paint Obama as somehow strange. Strange name. Look at his former church. Weird background. Lived awhile in Indonesia…subtext: is he really one of us? The Clinton campaign used this in a very subtle way, and showed the power of that approach in places like Kentucky and West Virginia. And while most of the country doesn’t have the continuing overt racism of that region or the deep south, there is enough to get people to even secretly vote for the old white guy. McCain may not be great, but we can imagine him at the dinner table.

There will also be the ‘swiftboating’ effort. Stark attacks, made if not on him then on close associates or more likely his wife. These will be meant to appeal to the hidden racist in most people, even those who try to deny any sort of racial bias, something to say “this guy really can’t be trusted to run the country.” A statement, a letter to a friend, some kind of video, who knows. The message will be that Obama is culturally strange, has hung around with strange people, have close associates who say things that sound un-American and certainly politically incorrect for a Presidential candidate. Real message: black folk are different, we can’t give them real power.

All of this will seem to be directed at Barack Obama, but make no mistake: Any strong African American contender would be subject to this, because the nature of our society means that there is still such a divide between the races that most of the time you’ll be able to find associations, statements and actions that seem to those who don’t understand the racial divisions – who would expect a black church to be just like the white Methodist church down the street, maybe with better singers – to be simply unacceptable for a President.

If anyone can overcome this, it’s Obama. He’s charismatic, intelligent, tough, and able to connect. He might just overcome the inevitable onslaught of subtle and not so subtle appeals to racism that the GOP is bound to throw out there. You’ve been warned. Get ready for it. This is a test of how far we’ve come as a society. If Obama loses because of such attacks and attitudes, this shows that the racial divide is extremely powerful, especially given how on paper Obama should be having an easy coast to victory. If Obama wins or at least keeps it very close, it will be symbolic of a country overcoming its racial divisions and moving forward. This is not to say anyone who votes against him is a racist; many people would never vote for him because they are conservative and Obama is clearly on the left. I’m talking about the impact overall, measured in how many voters who would have voted for a white Democrat this year decide to vote McCain because of hidden racism. In anyevent, whatever the outcome, 2008 will say something about what kind of nation we’ve become.

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The New Multilateralism

Last year Vladimir Putin was Time magazine’s man of the year, a choice which led to severe criticism from some quarters, complaining that Time was honoring a politician who was stifling freedom and grabbing quasi-dictatorial powers. In a future blog I’ll explain why, looking at Russian history, the criticism of Putin in the West may be misplaced. He is no liberal democrat, but his rule is more in the line of reforming Czars than repressive ones; one needs to look at Russia in the context of Russian history and culture, not by measuring them against western standards. Today, however, I want to discuss Putin’s foreign policy – a kind of pragmatic realism – and what that means for the US and EU.

Putin has emerged as a tough defender of Russian national interest, unwilling to bend when pressured by the US or EU. While this has put off the Bush administration, with prominent neo-conservatives claiming that Russia is “lost,” comparing Putin to past Communist dictators, his foreign policy style is potentially a very promising development as it points to the possibility of successful multilateralism. The caveat is that the US must give up its neo-conservative belief that we can use American power to shape the 21st century in our image. Iraq has shown that kind of thinking to be built on two false assumptions: a) that American power can be projected without great cost and can successfully reshape global politics; and b) that the international system is one where military power is a major determinant of national strength. In a global era where markets dominate and where military threats to advanced industrialized states are not other armies but subversive terror organizations, a huge military is virtually irrelevant — and as Iraq demonstrates, relatively impotent.

So where does that leave Russia? Clearly Putin seems to recognize that Russia can’t regain a Soviet style empire, and that Russian national interest is indeed Russian, and relates to Russia’s status and role in the world. That means that we do not need to fear that Russia will become an expansive imperial power the way people feared Communism. That said, Russia has strategic interests in parts of the world important to the United States, most notably Iran, the Mideast, Europe and China. In Iran and the Mideast, Russia seems to be not only directly challenging the US, but doing so effectively, undercutting American efforts to isolate Iran, and forging better ties with states like Syria. This is one reason why neo-conservatism has become unviable — Russia has proven not only able to resist our efforts, but to be effective at countering them. At the same time, Russia has successfully done what the Soviet Union failed to do — decouple America and Europe. To be sure, President Bush made Putin’s job easier by going to war in Iraq and letting Secretary Rumsfeld make derisive comments about the “old Europe,” leading to dramatic summits with Chirac, Schroeder and Putin in 2002 and 2003, but even as the US has repaired transatlantic ties, Russia remains a major partner to Europe and supplier of natural gas.

For their part, the Europeans realize that in the post-Cold War world their choice isn’t between the US and Russia, but involves relations with both. Russia is on the EU’s border, and a growing Russia is a lucrative market. Russia’s vast oil and natural gas reserves are as important as ever, while the profits from the sale of these reserves spark a Russian economic boom (and, unfortunately, a boom in corruption as well). China, of course, is also in the mix, and playing a similar game of pragmatic politics with both the EU and Russia. The United States, slowly recognizing that the unipolar moment is over, is having to adjust to its limited ability to call the shots. No longer leading the West, but certainly still the world’s largest military and economic power, the US is trying to adjust to a multipolar reality that at first blush seems to threaten the US in ways that were unimaginable ten or fifteen years ago. In this new order where military power has limited value, America’s economic vulnerabilities (which are greater than a lot of people imagine) are exacerbated, and the US ability to shape global affairs weakened. While that may seem to be bad news, especially to idealists who dreamed about US power reshaping the globe with fantasies of a pax americana, it is in reality good news.

Pax Americana was never feasible in an era of globalization when the main threat is terrorism rather than war. The good news is that the other major actors, China, Russia and the EU, are all pragmatic. They are focused on their own interests, defined more by economic factors than anything else. None of them have the desire to expand or fundamentally alter the system, and all are willing to work with each other on points of common interest. All have an interest to help prevent Islamic extremism from posing a real threat to the system, all will be hurt badly if there is a sharp downturn in the world economy. Not since the concert of Europe have the world’s powers been on a pragmatic same page like this, and at this time no one seems ready to play the role of a rising imperial Germany to break that apart. Like all moments in world politics, this one won’t last forever. But it does create the possibility that the emerging multipolar world order might be able to handle the challenges of the 21st century through acting together on mutual interests. That is good — not only for the world, but for Americans as well.

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