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"We are all American" - again, and if not squandered, for some time to come

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"We Are All American", Le Monde editorial by Jean-Marie Colombani, Sept. 12, 2001

With the close of the 2008 US presidential elections, "We're all Americans" - again, and if not squandered, for some time to come. In private email in May 2008, I echoed earlier conversations with conservative colleagues:

When people ask me about Obama, I say that the thing that most stands out in my mind is his ability to rally people to commit and to sacrifice; if anyone could get a draft through short of war, it is him. Short of a military draft, he could easily build a form of civilian draft. Our infrastructure and population surely needs it.

 

Why does this interest me? All studies of effective organizational change show that it was preceded by a cultural change that would implement without cynicism or self-interest. Absent the culture change, lip service is paid, another level of cynicism is laid down, and the pioneers soon get arrows in their front and their back. The US desperately needs a sum-sum recommitment. [private email]

In late October on the eve of the election I noted:

The US hold of hyperpower was brief and it is now going to need assistance from so many corners of the world, not just to obtain its foreign policy guidelines but to keep from slipping further. Only Obama has instilled that sense of hope. Wielded wisely, he can get sacrifice and commitment [globally] that another candidate could not." [private email]

While the US was absorbed in its presidential election, little notice was paid to rapt international attention:

It is 2 p.m. in Beirut. On Al-Jazeera TV, a correspondent is talking live from Arizona on how Republicans are preparing for the voting to start. A few minutes later, at the studio of the Qatar-based Arab satellite news channel, an American analyst is commenting on the results of the newest polls. For Arab media, the U.S. presidential election is far from being simply another item of foreign news. At least today, the election is being covered with almost the same intensity as on any U.S. news channel.

 

Starting this morning, the big satellite channels throughout the Middle East started extensive coverage of the election with commentators from around the world discussing the effect of the vote on the Middle East, charts and maps explaining where each of the two candidates are favored and several correspondents describing live the atmosphere of the voting day from various U.S. locales such as Virginia and  Florida.

 

The satellite channel Al Arabiya carried a report from Chicago's South Side showing images of the church where Obama attended services and the building where he worked as a community organizer. On Al-Jazeera, a talk show addressed the future of Iraq after the election and whether the Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama was prepared to end the war there. The channel interviewed Iraqis on the street on whether security in their country would be improved under a new American president.

 

Many Arab newspapers clearly expressed their hope for Obama to win in their opinion and editorial articles and headlines published this morning...

From the Netherlands:

During the past eight years, two bright and powerful moments in European-American relations stand out... On 12 September 2001, Le Monde proclaimed, "We are all American." And on 24 July 2008, Senator Barack Obama addressed 200,000 cheering Germans, many holding American flags. To an outside observer who knew nothing of the intervening years, Europe's enthusiastic response to Obama might seem to be a natural progression from Le Monde's declaration of support for America. We know, however, that a great rift separates those two events.

 

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush had an opportunity to harness the sympathy and support offered by many parts of the world to establish a new era of cooperation and understanding. Instead, he offered 'Freedom Fries,' the war in Iraq, derisive attacks on 'Old Europe,' and a refusal to partner with other countries to address major issues such as climate change. He also gave his growing cadre of critics an easy target for blame and an excuse for inaction. Yet those who have been quick to criticise the United States and to lay the responsibility for global problems at the feet of one man in Washington will soon be deprived of their familiar bogeyman...

Such comments mirrored the global reaction to an Obama presidency (see other bibliographic citations below). The thoughts that follow reflect the concepts that shape my worldview. From Islamic territory from North Africa to South Asia: No solutions, only adjustments

  • Lord Palmerston - "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow."
  • Sir Harold Nicholson - Describing diplomacy as "the understanding that for intractable problems there are only adjustments and not solutions."
  • Realpolitik - Politics based on strictly practical, even modest, goals rather than overzealous, idealistic goals.
  • Gregory III - "What fairness suggests, What the law allows, What will work."

I believe that Obama will exhibit a "ruthless pragmatism" that will discomfit many of those on the democratic left, will surprise and please many of the moderate and centrist democrats, independents and republicans, and will elate most of our international community. By July 2007, Obama was asking Brzezinski questions such as "What can a new president accomplish in foreign policy in his first 12 months in office that he can't achieve later?... How should a new president reorganize his national security team so that the structure fits the problems of the 21st century?" Ignatius echoes Brzezinski in stating that "change and caution" are "the two channel markers for Obama foreign policy."

 

After decades of anti-intellectualism (beyond the studied educational condescension of Bush43, Clinton too often played to his bubba side), it will be interesting to watch this administration unfold:

"What is beginning to take shape is a group of people that are unified in their purpose but diversified in their perspectives and views... All of them are rooted in pragmatism and reality in the context of accomplishing demonstratable results. [Obama's] going to have a group of people that from Day One all know what they're doing, are deeply committed to Senator Obama's philosophy, but isn't a 'yes' group, not at all."

It will be more interesting if Brzezinski's view plays out:

[This] election means first of all that a very negative chapter in American foreign policy and American domestic affairs has come to an end. I particularly mind the various unfortunate moves that characterized the past eight years of the Bush administration. But secondly, I think it means something much more positive. Namely that America is now defining itself increasingly as a 21st century universal society, in which membership in that society is based not on ethnicity or on race, but increasingly on shared values, fundamentally universal values, democratic values...

Speaking of al Qaida early on, I noted that the strategic options were "cure, kill or contain" and that "Two don't work; the third is merely exceptionally difficult." If a US administration can hold Brzezinski's image, if not its substance, abroad after the debacle of Abu Ghraib (also here), it will materially lighten both our military and diplomatic burden. Shachtman confirmed as much in this impromptu interview:

In late January, shortly after the Iowa caucuses, I found myself at a conference, sitting next to a flag-level officer. He was an unapologetic Christian conservative -- sent his kid to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, saw the fight against terror as a religious war. So he was not exactly inclined to say nice things about a Democrat running for president. Yet here the officer was, praising Obama.

 

You see, this officer oversaw special operations work around the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Sensitive stuff, that requires delicate negotiations. And already, just as one among many candidates for president, Obama was making this officer's job easier. Officials in other governments were more willing to provide his troops access to their countries. Foreign intelligence services were more willing to share information.

 

One of the themes of this conference was information operations, or "IO" -- how the U.S. can influence others around the world. This officer and other conference-goers were disgusted, by how badly the U.S. had bungled this war of ideas, and allowed opinions about America to sink so low. Candidate Obama, the group concluded, was the best IO campaign America had had in years. Allies were more ready to listen. Enemies' narratives about America were being undercut.

Domestically, I predict that the selection of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff has more to do with keeping the Democrats in check than assaulting the Republicans, despite their charges of partisanship against the president-elect. Obama is already working to shape and prioritize a longer term agenda than the pork barrel folk have interest. With only one Democratic administration in 28 years, there will be great pressure among Democrats to apportion the spoils. (We should not forget the role that constituents play in rewarding their congressional representatives, especially in a down economy where demands will be high.) Herding cats will become a useful metaphor. In the face of this, Obama and the executive branch must maintain an exceptionally high level of focus on mission while minimizing fractures in Democratic unity.

 

Sadly, this governance more from the center than from the left will not reach either the liberal left or conservative right as they will filter it out:

Westen describes an experiment he conducted in the fall of 2004 on committed Democrats and Republicans. Subjects had their brains scanned while they viewed slides containing pairs of contradictory statements from their favored candidate (George W. Bush or John Kerry). Confronted with the unwelcome contradictions, each subject's network of neurons associated with distress and regulating emotions... lit up. But soon the subjects found ways to deny that there was any significant contradiction, and calm returned. "The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs" - even false ones - that would eliminate the distress each subject was experiencing... Meanwhile, the reasoning centers of the brain [were] quiet. What's more, the neural circuits responsible for positive emotions turned on as soon as the subject found a way to resolve the contradictions - reinforcing the faulty reasoning...

 

Westen and his associates [found] that committed supporters were essentially doping their own neural circuits: "The partisan brain didn't seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their 'fix,' giving new meaning to the term, political junkie."

Next: Hillbilly Sudetenland

 

Sometimes Continuity Trumps Change

Three Bush Appointees in Crucial Positions Likely to Remain Under Obama

By Alec MacGillis and Ann Scott Tyson

Washington Post

November 10, 2008

 

Economy won't stop Obama's priorities, aides say

By Andy Sullivan

Reuters

Nov 9, 2008 2:42pm EST

 

Obama Positioned to Quickly Reverse Bush Actions

Stem Cell, Climate Rules Among Targets of President-Elect's Team

By Ceci Connolly and R. Jeffrey Smith

Washington Post

November 9, 2008

 

Preparing for the Obama Era

Bush Officials and President-Elect Working Together On Pressing Issues

By Robert Barnes, Dan Eggen and Anne E. Kornblut

Washington Post

November 9, 2008

 

Emanuel to Be Chief of Staff

Obama's Choice Could Signal Rapid Succession of Cabinet Picks

By Anne E. Kornblut and Karen DeYoung

Washington Post

November 7, 2008

 

Obama's choice of Emanuel shows switch in tone

By LIZ SIDOTI and NEDRA PICKLER

Associated Press

November 7, 2008; 12:34 AM

 

PostGlobal: World Reactions to the U.S. Election

Transcript of queries/replies

David Ignatius

Co-Moderator, PostGlobal

November 6, 2008; 2:30 PM

 

All Deliberate Speed

On Foreign Policy, Change and Caution

By David Ignatius

November 6, 2008

 

U.S. Again Hailed as 'Country of Dreams'

Around the World, Obama's Victory Is Seen as a Renewal of American Ideals and Aspirations

By Kevin Sullivan

Washington Post

November 6, 2008

 

Europe, say once again: 'we're all Americans'

By Nathan Rodgers

NRC Handelsblad

5 November 2008 10:25, Changed: 5 November 2008 10:25

 

Republicans Confront Formidable Task Ahead

Leaders Agree on Need for Party Restructuring

By Michael Abramowitz

Washington Post

November 5, 2008

 

What Obama Means to America's 'Info Ops'

By Noah Shachtman

Wired

November 05, 2008 12:02:27 PM

 

Suddenly, it may be cool to be an American again

By William J. Kole

Associated Press

Nov 5, 2:58 pm ET

 

IRAQ: Mesopotamia ponders Obama

Babylon & Beyond

12:50 PM PT, Nov 5 200

 

ISRAEL, WEST BANK: Neither side expecting a major Obama effect

Babylon & Beyond

11:55 AM PT, Nov 5 2008

 

LEBANON: News of Obama's victory spreads via Facebook, text message and TV

Babylon & Beyond

10:33 AM PT, Nov 5 2008

 

IRAN: Obama election inspires even if played down

Babylon & Beyond

09:06 AM PT, Nov 5 2008

 

EGYPT: Mixed feelings among Arabs about Obama's victory

Babylon & Beyond

05:11 AM PT, Nov 5 2008

 

MIDDLE EAST: Blanket coverage of U.S. presidential elections

Babylon & Beyond/LA Times

12:06 PM PT, Nov 4 2008

 

Dominance In Presidential Debates: Barack Obama's 'Rope-a-dope' Style

ScienceDaily

Oct. 30, 2008

 

'America Has Reinvented Itself'

Interview With Head Of American Council On Germany

Spiegel Online

11/10/2008

 

Case Study

By ALEXANDRA STARR

New York Times Magazine

Published: September 19, 2008

 

Brzezinski Endorses Obama; Calls Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy "Very Conventional"

Steve Clemons

Washington Note

Aug 24, 2:59PM 2007

 

Psyched: A psychologist looks into voters' minds and draws a lesson or two for Democrats.

'The Political Brain' reviewed by Chris Lehmann

Washington Post

July 15, 2007

 

US Headed For Change, Says Former National Security Advisor

Interview: Anna Kuhn-Osius with Zbigniew Brzezinski

Deutsche Welle

07.11.2008

 

Renewing the French-American Alliance

By Nicolas Sarkozy

Real Clear Politics

November 07, 2007

 

Counseling Democrats to Go for the Gut

By PATRICIA COHEN

New York Times

July 10, 2007

 

The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation

By Drew Westen

ISBN-10: 1586484257

PublicAffairs (June 25, 2007)

 

Are We Still 'All American'?

If you want sympathy from France, just elect John Kerry.

by Jean-Marie Colombani

Wall Street Journal

Saturday, March 13, 2004 12:01 A.M. EST

 

Gordon Housworth



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