Barack Obama claims to understand uniquely how the world’s perceptions of the United States have changed in recent years. For starters, Obama lived in Indonesia from the ages of six to ten, making him the only presidential candidate to have spent any substantial period of time in the Muslim world. Moreover, as he’s eager to tell us, Obama is deeply connected with other cultures, with a grandmother living in Kenya, a half-Indonesian sister, and a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law. In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, James Traub explores how Obama’s biography has influenced his vision for American foreign policy:
[Obama] returns again and again to the question of what America means to the rest of the world…. Obama would like to restore the era when people in capitals all over the world could go to the local American cultural center to read books and magazines, the way he could in Jakarta—though now he would add English lessons and vocational training, and “stories of America’s Muslims and the strength they add to our country.”
Obama is correct that the United States should more aggressively reach out to Muslim publics. However, restoring America’s reputation will require more than emphasizing those values that Americans share with the Muslim world—which the presence of a strong, domestic Muslim-American community certainly symbolizes. Indeed, the true challenge of public diplomacy lies in frankly addressing those issues on which the United States and the Muslim world differ, including the war in Iraq, the fight against Islamist terrorist groups, support for Israel, and the drive to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capabilities.
In explaining the U.S.’s interest on these critical issues, Obama is ill-prepared. He prides himself on having opposed the Iraq war since 2002, and would likely reinforce the perception of many in the Muslim world that the war was the product of “exaggerated fears.”
Obama further appears unsuited to explaining the U.S.-Israel relationship, which he has supported publicly. He is advised by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has defended the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis that this relationship is the product of Jewish pressure, not strategic interest—a theory that has contributed to the proliferation of popular anti-Semitism on the “Arab street.” Indeed, Brzezinski is a huge liability if Obama hopes to convince Americans of his ability to sell American foreign policy. Brzezinski recently signed a letter demanding dialogue with Hamas, a move that would turn our backs on the one Arab constituency still nominally receptive to American aims—liberal Arabs. Of course, this letter was consistent with Obama’s own belief that the U.S. should talk with Iran’s leaders—a move that similarly would alienate Iran’s younger generation, widely thought to be liberal and pro-American.
If Obama hopes to prove that his version of “soft power” is truly powerful, he must explain how he will broaden America’s appeal among opponents in the Middle East without alienating allies. Distributing State Department-approved copies of Muhammad Ali’s biography and providing free English lessons simply won’t cut it.