I’ve gotten a couple of very unusual emails the past few weeks. As the presidential primaries heat up in the US, I’m getting polite, gracious, very enthusiastic emails from friends in other countries who hope that I’ll be voting for Obama. None urging support for Clinton, McCain or, god forbid, Romney.
I answered a few of these early emails telling people that there was no chance my vote would actually count in the primaries – as a Massachusetts voter, I’m used to having the primaries over and done by the time I get to pull a lever. But the combination of Massachusetts joining super-duper Tuesday and a surprisingly competitive Democratic field means that my vote actually counts, for a change.
And my international friends will be happy, I hope, that I’m voting for Obama.
I wish I had a slew of good policy reasons to support Obama over Clinton. I don’t. Both are articulating economic and environmental policies I can live with. Both endorse civil unions, but neither has been brave enough to support gay marriage. Frustrated as I am with Clinton’s vote to allow Bush’s endless war in Iraq, I can’t find huge distinctions between her plan to end the war and Obama’s. Frankly, I believe either would be a solid, competent leader, and would be a damned sight better than the last seven years we’ve suffered through.
But my friends from overseas have a point, and it’s a point I agree with. America’s image abroad has suffered incalculably under the Bush 43 presidency. It’s going to require a huge overhaul for America to be viewed as a desirable partner in international affairs and as a force for positive change. I’m not sure Hillary Clinton has the power to change America’s image that profoundly; I think that Barack Obama does.
Obama is a born globalist. He’s the child of a first-generation immigrant; he’s lived and studied abroad; his family tree helps reflect the diversity and complexity that characterizes our nation. Writing in what amounted to an endorsement of Obama, Fareed Zakaria talks about the importance of understanding the views of the rest of the world:
But when I think about what is truly distinctive about the way I look at the world, about the advantage that I may have over others in understanding foreign affairs, it is that I know what it means not to be an American. I know intimately the attraction, the repulsion, the hopes, the disappointments that the other 95 percent of humanity feels when thinking about this country. I know it because for a good part of my life, I wasn’t an American. I was the outsider, growing up 8,000 miles away from the centers of power, being shaped by forces over which my country had no control.
Understanding that perspective is going to be critical in rehabilitating America’s international image. Zakaria believes that Obama will see America, in part, from that outsider’s perspective and that his ability to step outside the usual American frame will strengthen his decisionmaking on foreign policy. Other commentators have suggested that Obama will be perceived as a globalist. Writing in the Lebanon Daily Star, Dominique Moisi noted, “The very moment he appears on the world’s television screens, victorious and smiling, America’s image and soft power would experience something like a Copernican revolution.” We could use one of those right about now.
We could also use a Copernican revolution in the tone of politics in America. As happy as I was to see Bill Clinton elected in 1992, his presidency was punctuated by the most rancorous, nasty, hatefully partisan politics I’d ever care to see. I can’t help thinking that a Hillary Clinton campaign is going to be a redux of some of American politics at its worst. I don’t blame Hillary for this – I just think that there’s a large group of pundits, commentators and politicians who genuinely believe she’s the devil, and who will go to the ends of the earth to combat her candidacy or presidency, dragging the tone of discussion down in the process.
John Broder offered a hopeful story in the New York Times Week in Review a year ago, suggesting that Obama might be able to move beyond the political divides of the 1960s and change the tone of left/right debates in the US. He quotes from Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope”:
In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.
Broder argues that this is a boomer drama, and that Obama may simply be able to move beyond it since his political instincts and signposts are from later years. Those endlessly rehashed arguments from the 60s simply aren’t his battles, and he’s in a better position to let go of them than Clinton, avatar for many of these arguments, will be.
Hope is really the reason I’ll be pulling the lever for Obama tomorrow. Hope that some of the damage of the past few years can be corrected. Hope that nations will be willing to look at the US as a partner in international efforts. Hope that the partisan grind of Washington could move a bit more smoothly and civilly. Hope that I can put away my American Apology t-shirt.
I’ll close with Obama speaking about hope and foreign policy in a speech that helped me make up my mind about how to cast my vote:
We know where extremists thrive. In conflict zones that are incubators of resentment and anarchy. In weak states that cannot control their borders or territory, or meet the basic needs of their people. From Africa to central Asia to the Pacific Rim — nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. The extremists encourage the exploitation of these hopeless places on their hate-filled websites.
And we know what the extremists say about us. America is just an occupying Army in Muslim lands, the shadow of a shrouded figure standing on a box at Abu Ghraib, the power behind the throne of a repressive leader. They say we are at war with Islam. That is the whispered line of the extremist who has nothing to offer in this battle of ideas but blame — blame America, blame progress, blame Jews. And often he offers something along with the hate. A sense of empowerment. Maybe an education at a madrasa, some charity for your family, some basic services in the neighborhood. And then: a mission and a gun.
We know we are not who they say we are. America is at war with terrorists who killed on our soil. We are not at war with Islam. America is a compassionate nation that wants a better future for all people. The vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims have no use for bin Ladin or his bankrupt ideas. But too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us, not the other way around.
When I am President, that will change. We will author our own story.
We do need to stand for democracy. And I will. But democracy is about more than a ballot box. America must show — through deeds as well as words — that we stand with those who seek a better life. That child looking up at the helicopter must see America and feel hope.
If you’re interested in international views on the US elections, including a whole lot of posts expressing enthusiasm for Obama, let me direct you to Voices Without Votes. This is a new collaboration between Reuters and Global Voices, and will be showcasing an international perspective on the US elections via blogs. It’s edited by Amira Al-Hussaini, our remarkable Middle East editor, and promises to be an amazing platform for international perspectives over the next ten months.