Despite my disagreement with some of his policies, I find the highly likely election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States a thrilling event. Never has an election been so symbolic of change, but also carrying such huge expectations for the future.
In one’s lifetime, you witness a handful of seminal events. For me they have been the day the Berlin Wall came down and September 11. The election of an African-American to the United States Presidency may join that league.
It is not only the fact that the US once had slavery that makes his election remarkable. Those days were many generations ago. But just a few decades ago the US had wide-spread segregation. It shows the remarkable ability of some cultures and societies to change that within a lifetime you can go from a country where blacks are segregated as second class citizens to having a black man elected President.
The United States is far from perfect, but if you have to choose one country in the world to be the super-power, I am damn glad it is the United States. There are many great things about the country – the constitution, the bill of rights, term limits, massive inwards immigration, the ability of poor immigrants to rise to the top etc etc.
This doesn’t stop relentless America bashing as if it was the most evil country on the planet. People would have you think it was a white Christian fundamentalist country that causes poverty in Africa, demonises Muslims and is controlled by a military industrial cabal that keeps Bush and Cheney in power forever. The fact that the Republicans are about to get trounced should silence the conspiracy fanatics for a while about Bush and Diebold stealing elections.
The symbolism of Obama’s election is massive. This half Kenyan American managed to beat both the Clinton machine and the Republican machine to win the most powerful job in the world.
Obama is not Muslim, but his father was and he attended a Muslim school for a couple of years growing up in Asia. His middle name is Hussein. That should make it a lot harder for the forces of jihad to gain supporters in their war against the United States and western civilisation more generally. Unless they call him an apostate, he is a much harder figure to demonise.
The election of Obama will be a profund display to the world, that for all its faults, the United States is a country that can put race and prejudice to one side – maybe not everyone – but most of them. If I had to use a local comparison I would cite the election of Georgina Beyer as MP for Wairarapa in 1999. Again, I may not have supported Beyer’s politics, but I thought it was a great tribute to NZers that they would elect who they saw as the best person to be an MP, even though they were a transexual who went from being a man to a woman. Having said that, I don’t think Obama is a Beyer – he has shown himself to be a truly accomplished politician and gifted orator. I recall blogging before the 2004 election that I thought he would be President one day.
So Obama has a great opportunity ahead of him. He will have an extended honeymoon from the media, from his public and from much of the world. He may be able to do more to defeat anti-Americanism than any otehr person or event.
But with great opportunity comes great risk. Many of his supporters, both domestically and internationally, see him as above politics. And he is not. He will, as President, have to make decision that will not sit well with some people. And the greater the expectation the greater the disappointment. Will people understand when he still has troops in Iraq in 18 months time? Will they understand when the US still does not sign the Kyoto Treaty?
And most of all, what will happen when he may have to pull the trigger, as Bill English put it. Countries like Iran may seek to test Obama. Will he allow them to develop nuclear weapons? What will he do when North Korea reneges on its agreement to cease nuclear testing? Foreign Policy is often a case of choosing the least worst alternative.