Morning in America?
I was in Nigeria in 2003 around the time that the insurgency in Iraq first started claiming American casualties after the US invasion earlier that year. Stuck in a traffic jam of Biblical proportions in Lagos, I was listening to the local radio. As a report came in about a clash in Iraq and a number of American deaths, the announcer started laughing and cheering. "Light em up!" I recall him shouting. "Get those Americans!"
Contrast that with the reception I received as I was leaving Indonesia recently for a vacation. As I sleepwalked into the departure lounge, the Indonesian woman checking boarding passes said, “Congratulations on your president!” as she waved my passport in the air.
I have spent the better part of my adult life abroad, and those two minor anecdotes pretty much sum up my hope for the Barack Obama presidency. Simply by electing him, and rejecting the arrogance, delusion and abuse of the Bush years, it seems that America has rejoined the world.
It did not have to turn out this way for Bush, of course. I recall being stopped on the street in Bangkok, Manila and elsewhere following the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sep. 11, 2001 by strangers who expressed genuine shock and sympathy. The same thing happened to countless other Americans abroad as people inquired if we lost anyone in the towers and wished us well. It was as if much of the world felt those attacks as a personal insult.
That the Bush White House managed to turn that grief and good will against the United States with the invasion of Iraq, the counterproductive use of torture against detainees and other misbegotten policies is surely one of the greatest acts of political miscalculation in history. The Bush White House took the fact of a terror attack — something a great many nations before and since have also experienced — and turned it into an excuse to assert America's right to somehow be above international law, define “freedom” for others and use force to impose its will.
Thinking of the political history of my generation — born in the 1950s, coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s — the Obama phenomenon is truly remarkable. One would have expected, after the Bush years, a swing to the left that would bring with it an atmosphere of retribution. But Obama seems to be someone who has the chance to forge some kind of consensus after the Bush mess. In terms of style and approach, he does not seem intent on getting pay-back for perceived grievances.
This may be in part because he really is an international person, with roots in Africa and childhood experience in Indonesia; he grew up in Hawaii, the American state that is closest ethnically and culturally to Asia. When John F. Kennedy was elected president, the fact that he was the first Roman Catholic in that office, created a sensation in Europe and Latin America, turning the handsome young American into an icon abroad. In much the same way, Obama is a unique American politician whose style and background fit no previous category. He is neither a veteran black civil rights activist, like Jesse Jackson, nor a traditional liberal. He is something new for us.
It is telling that a fair number of high-profile American conservatives endorsed Obama and even those who did not have muted their criticism somewhat. The US pundit class is also treading somewhat lightly for now, perhaps because the polls are on Obama's side and the country is in such deep economic trouble.
America needs to reconsider its role in the world, its diminishing power and the enormous economic crisis it kicked off with irresponsible and inadequate supervision of its housing and financial markets. It needs to cooperate again with the world, to heal the bitter feelings against the country, especially in the Islamic world, and to find new structures to replace the tattered ones of the post-World War II era.
The sorry end of the Bush years, with all that empty talk of US-defined freedom falling on deaf ears and the accumulated folly of Wall Street driving the world's markets to collapse, was probably a shock in the insular environs of Washington, DC. Out here, I think a lot of us saw it coming. Things had to change. I sure hope Obama is the guy to get it done. I wish him luck.