A new face for American diplomacy

Barack Obama is perceived by Muslims abroad like no other candidate. He would begin a presidency with tremendous potential to heal U.S. relations with much of the world.

Published February 21, 2008 11:16AM (EST)

When I was in Tehran, Iran, a year ago, I was asked by several senior government officials, including former President Mohammad Khatami, what to make of Barack Obama's candidacy for president of the United States. The young senator from Illinois was still barely on the international radar then. My response was that I couldn't see Americans nominating, let alone electing, a black man whose middle name was Hussein. My answer, clearly wrong in hindsight, stirred smiles and raised eyebrows among the Iranian leaders because they'd had no idea that Obama had a Muslim father. Even more surprising to them was that he carried, apparently without shame, a Muslim name. From Khatami this elicited an "Ajab!" -- Farsi for, essentially, "You've got to be kidding!" There were also many nods of agreement with my conclusion about Obama's chances.

At this point in the presidential race, although it is deeply heartening that I was so wrong in my judgment of American voters, Obama's great potential to connect with the Muslim world, and to change how Muslims perceive the United States, is conspicuously absent from our national debate. A crucial question about who should be the next president is whether Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain is most likely to be able to heal the rift between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, a rift not created but dangerously widened by the administration of George W. Bush. What is abundantly clear now -- at least to many foreigners and particularly to Muslims in the Third World -- is that Barack Obama is the candidate by far the best suited to begin healing that rift and restoring America's global reputation, and perhaps even to begin reversing decades of anti-Americanism. Obama would begin a presidency with a huge advantage in terms of world perception.

Here in America, Obama's personal connection with Islam -- slight as it is in truth -- has provoked some telling atmospherics. His Muslim name, and even his perceived Muslim past -- a fiction peddled by Fox News last year and quickly debunked by other media -- remains an issue for some Americans. Some voters freely (and shamelessly) admit to pollsters that they are "uncomfortable" with a candidate who might have Muslim sympathies or sensitivities. During one of the Democratic debates, Obama's own response to a question on this issue was overly cautious and, frankly, disappointing. He denied ever having been a Muslim -- but he neglected to point out, Seinfeld-like, that there would be nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there continues to be a lingering sense in this country, a sense that played into my conclusion in Tehran, that Muslims are by definition enemies of the West.

That's hardly surprising, after more than six years of fear-mongering by the Bush administration in its war on terrorism. Likewise, all the tough-guy rhetoric from the Republican presidential candidates about battling "Islamic fascists" has perpetuated the unease. The conspicuously churchgoing Obama, who has made a point of describing his Christian faith on the campaign trail, seems to have so far overcome the faux obstacles contained in his name -- a surname rhyming with the name of America's Public Enemy No. 1, and a middle name common to the Arab world and evoking the vanquished former dictator of Iraq. But knowing the Republican playbook, if Obama does become the Democratic nominee he will surely face insidious attacks on his profile meant to exploit Americans' fears. It is perhaps for this reason that there has been no outpouring of sentiment for Obama in the Arab or Iranian media -- something that the Muslim world knows only too well could arm the Republican attack machine and dampen Obama's chances of winning the election.

While most Americans care little about foreign policy or foreign relations, unless direct risk to American life and limb is involved, how those endeavors apply to the Muslim world will figure more prominently in the general election. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has little else to distinguish himself with than the issue of national security. The war in Iraq will still be destroying American life and limb. And there will still be a sense, here and abroad, that America remains at war with the Muslim world.

If foreign relations are viewed to be as important as foreign policy, as they should be, Hillary Clinton has big weaknesses as a candidate. Her initial, and later revised, support for the war in Iraq leaves her judgment suspect in the eyes of many in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. With the exception of maybe Europe, it is hard to imagine that Clinton will be viewed beyond U.S. shores as much different than any other recent American president when it comes to the dynamic of U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Earlier in the campaign, Clinton mocked Obama's willingness to sit down with foreign adversaries such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arguing that the "prestige" of the United States would be put at risk by negotiating with such enemies without their meeting pre-conditions. (Clinton has since sought to clarify her position, saying that the U.S. should directly engage in "diplomatic processes" with nations such as Iran and Syria -- but she has not rescinded her position of doing so conditionally.)

Clinton's attack on Obama illustrated that she has very little concept of where American "prestige" currently lies -- namely, in the gutter as far as millions around the world are concerned. Maintaining a unilateral attitude toward U.S. adversaries will be perceived elsewhere as a policy similar to that of President Bush, and will hardly be a step toward improving America's reputation. In effect, Clinton's posture signals to much of the world that although she is smarter, more likable and far less threatening than Bush, U.S. foreign policy under her would continue to be one of arrogance and dominance.

Rightly or wrongly, Obama, who opposed the Iraq war from the start, simply will not be viewed as having the same attitude. This is not just because he's the son of an African immigrant or that he's black, although those elements certainly factor in, but also because he does not come across as (nor is he) someone from the privileged American class who believes America should impose its wishes on the rest of the world.

The most important foreign policy issue of relative concern to Americans may be the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- but in truth, the most important long-term issue, the one that may most affect our standing in the Muslim world, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (President Bush was rather late in recognizing this, and despite some 11th-hour activity is unlikely to succeed in solving the problem at all before leaving office.) Here, Clinton will have little, if any, credibility with Palestinians (or other Muslims) as an impartial broker in any peace process. There are several reasons for this: Many in the Muslim world believe that with the Oslo peace process Bill Clinton tried to force Yasser Arafat to accept a treaty more beneficial to Israelis than Palestinians, and then blamed Arafat unfairly for the failure of the process. There is also suspicion among Muslim leaders and across Arab media of Hillary Clinton's deep ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful conservative lobbying group.

Obama would not carry the same kind of baggage into U.S. attempts at mediation. And the basic perception, right or wrong, of him as someone with sympathies for oppressed people, and for Muslims in particular, will give him a tremendous negotiating advantage, whether with Palestinians, other Arabs or Iranians, for that matter, who largely view themselves as oppressed. There is a natural empathy in the Muslim world for anyone who carries a sacred Muslim name, such as there was for Muhammad Ali (even though his brand of Islam, the Nation of Islam, was as foreign to most Muslims as Mormonism is to mainstream Christianity). But while Muslim and third-world leaders will have little doubt about Obama's allegiance to American principles and American interests (unlike those Americans who might question his loyalties), they also will have little doubt as to his compassion for and understanding of their grievances. They may believe Obama's mantra of "change" even more than Americans do.

Either an Obama-McCain or Clinton-McCain race will be viewed with as much interest around the world, obviously, as it will be in the United States. McCain, honorable though he may be with his many years of service, will be viewed abroad as the candidate representing the belief that America's problems can be solved through military might. He will be viewed as the candidate who believes that America is under threat from what he himself calls "Islamists." With her own record and political history, Clinton will be viewed abroad as someone who is easily willing to resort to force, and who embodies the same foreign policy philosophies -- particularly as they apply to the Middle East -- as every recent president before her. Obama, on the other hand, will be viewed as an American presidential candidate unlike any prior one.

Iran will continue to pose one of the prime foreign policy challenges for the next U.S. president. In Tehran, I know, politicians and ordinary Iranians alike would welcome an Obama presidency -- particularly as Iran's own presidency is up for grabs six months after the next U.S. president takes office. Even Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may well be looking forward to a day when he has no more excuses to avoid talking to the "Great Satan." In January, he made an unprecedented announcement about relations between Iran and the United States: "Not having relations with America is one of our main policies, but we have never said this relationship should be cut forever," Khamenei said in a speech in the central province of Yazd, as reported by Iranian state television. "Certainly, the day when having relations with America is useful for the nation I will be the first one to approve this relationship."

Even Iran's arch-conservatives have realized that Iran's chronic economic problems as well as its long-term growth, political stability and national security will be better addressed by a thaw and gradual normalization of relations with the world's leading superpower. With Obama as president, the "Great Satan" would surely have to be renamed anyway; Satan, after all, could not have the middle name of Hussein.

While some Americans might be uncomfortable with a President Obama running around the world making deals with what they consider unsavory regimes and characters, perhaps they shouldn't be so worried. If anything, it's the Republicans more than the Democrats who have run around the world in the past making deals with unsavory regimes and characters. (They conveniently just don't call them unsavory at the time, knowing that Americans by and large are incurious about foreign affairs.)

Obama has spoken clearly about his vision for defending American security and interests. "We can create the kind of foreign policy that will make us safe and will lead to renewed respect of America around the world," he reiterated in a speech Tuesday night, at a campaign rally in Houston, Texas. "You know, as your commander in chief, my job will be to keep you safe ... And I will not hesitate to strike against any who would do us harm. I will do whatever is required." That would include hunting down terrorists, securing loose nuclear weapons, and deploying the U.S. military wisely, he said. He further underscored his foreign policy paradigm: "I want to rediscover the power of our diplomacy. I said early in this campaign I would meet not just with our friends, but also with our enemies ... I remember what John F. Kennedy said. He said we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate. Strong countries and strong presidents talk to their adversaries, and tell them where America stands, and try to resolve differences without resort to war. And when we do that, I believe the world is waiting. I want to go before the world community and say, 'America's back, and we are ready to lead.'"

Obama has also surrounded himself with capable and respected foreign policy advisors, including seeking advice from a preeminent and forceful U.S. negotiator, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose reputation overseas is less sullied than it is back home. With foreign policy, there is no indication Obama will give away the store or, contrary to what his opponents might charge, that he will be a Chamberlain-like appeaser.

Rather, a President Obama will likely engage the world in the way it should be engaged -- with respect, understanding and a clear sense of purpose. He will be, at the very least, a symbol of what can restore greatness to America -- a greatness that millions of people outside America want to believe in, but have up until now had difficulty reconciling with the facts. From their perspective, if a black son-of-an-immigrant with a Muslim name can become an American president, then anything truly is possible in America. And that's a country that would be very hard to be enemies with.

By Hooman Majd

Hooman Majd has written on Iranian affairs for Salon since 2007. His book on Iran and its people, "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran" (Doubleday) was published in September. Majd travels regularly to Iran and has served as an advisor and translator for two Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to the United States and the United Nations.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Iran John Mccain R-ariz.