Race-And Foreign Policy

March 19, 2008

Race-And Foreign Policy

On Tuesday Barack Obama said that America needs to move beyond racial accusations and start finding solutions. Would he extend that same pragmatism to foreign policy?

Much of Senator Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday, which sought to clarify rather than repudiate his twenty-year relationship with the Chicago Reverend Jeremiah "Goddamn America" Wright, was devoted to discussing race inside America. But midway through his address, Obama also directly addressed the issue of American foreign policy by linking it with racial perceptions. It was an incisive way to counteract Wright's condemnation of America's supposed sins, which seem to range from bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to abetting Israel's "state terrorism."

Obama explained, "The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country-a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." Strong words. But for some of Obama's critics on the Right, it was a case of too little, too late. "The problem for Obama is that the length and depth of his relationship with the Rev. Wright and his unconvincing attempts to distance himself from his mentor tell Americans far more about his values and judgment than his compelling campaign speeches about racial harmony do," the National Review editorialized on March 18.

Actually, they don't. Obama's speech about Wright was itself quite convincing. What Obama accomplished was not simply to reject Wright's effusions, but also to explain why he made them-to, in other words, give them a context without excusing them. This was no small achievement. Obama suggested that Americans, black and white, need to confront and surpass their shortcomings rather than wallow in emotionally satisfying denunciations of each other. Essentially, he reversed the questions about his relationship with Reverend Wright to one about what course America is going to pursue in the future. Talk about audacity: Obama apparently wants to unify not only America, but the whole world. Interestingly, Obama, in his exhortational stress on values and America's perfectibility and quest for greatness, has more in common with Senator John McCain than Senator Hillary Clinton, who shuns lofty talk about America in favor of an antiseptic approach.

While Obama didn't go so far as to argue that America's fate hinges on the success of his candidacy, he seems to be suggesting that as president he would most definitely seek to redeem America's promise by blazing a path toward a new, less confrontational approach at home and abroad-one that he has already outlined in declaring his readiness to talk directly to Iran, Syria and Cuba. Most importantly, the brouhaha over Wright's lunacies about "the U.S. of KKK A" shouldn't be allowed to obscure the fact that a vigorous debate about the direction of American foreign policy is long overdue.

And so, had Obama wanted to be even more daring on Tuesday, he might have noted that criticism of American foreign policy is not, as the Bush administration has tried to suggest, tantamount to anti-Americanism or blaming America first. While Obama gingerly sidestepped any specifics when it came to foreign affairs, a probing essay in the April 3 New York Review of Books by David Bromwich is illustrative of the growing disquiet, not just among realist conservatives, but also on the progressive left, with the view of America as a foreign-policy innocent, a Little Bo Peep timidly venturing around the globe, only to be unexpectedly assailed by malevolent marauders. Bromwich, who is a professor of English at Yale and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, closely examines what he sees as the anesthetized language that Americans employ when it comes to waging the war on terror. In his view, "the uniformity of the presentation by the mass media after 2001, to the effect that the United States now faced threats arising from a fanaticism with religious roots unconnected to anything America had done or could do, betrayed a stupefying abdication of judgment."

Bromwich's arguments are not all that different from those of the Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson, who has pointed to the ubiquity of American military bases around the globe as a proximate cause for growing antipathy toward American foreign policy. In the diagnoses of American fecklessness, one thing seems clear: whether terrorism is fueled by nationalism or religious fanaticism, the Bush administration's policies have inadvertently provoked rather than suppressed it. Future historians will surely record the irony that Bush, who declared in his second inaugural address that he sought to achieve the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," himself came to be regarded by much of the world as a would-be tyrant.

The truth is that Americans have been suffering from a kind of myopia that willfully refuses to perceive the startling extent of the erosion of power and prestige that has ensued during the Bush presidency, a myopia that may only be ending as gas prices soar, housing values plummet and the dollar collapses. This illusion of omnipotence has been rooted in a form of self-exculpation that seeks to exempt America from its actions abroad, whether it's invading Iraq or propping up a Pakistani authoritarian. But there is no exemption from history and America hasn't been simply a victim, but also, at times, an aggressor whose professions of beneficence have been scorned by the locals they were supposed to attract.

Whether Obama's expressions of goodwill and faith in American exceptionalism, based on serving as an example to the rest of the world, can repair the damage wrought over the past decade by the Bush administration or are merely empty phrases is another matter. But it is surely a more pressing one than dwelling upon exactly how many hours he spent sitting in a pew listening to an elderly demagogue whom he has now disavowed.



Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest .