With the American presidential election coming up next month, it is worth asking what aspects of capitalist culture will a new administration adopt, particularly as regards the Middle East. Will the defense of open markets and open minds be high on the agenda of the new president, and how does John McCain differ from Barack Obama in that regard?
An interesting answer to these questions comes from Fouad Ajami, writing in the Wall Street Journal of September 10. Ajami, a professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, was one of the intellectual godfathers of the Iraq invasion, someone close to the neoconservatives in Washington and a firm believer in America as beacon to the world.
In his article, Ajami argues that signs of the public’s misgivings with Obama are the result of its uncertainty about the candidate’s capacities in foreign policy. But Ajami also sees a deeper problem: Obama and those supporting him have abandoned what traditionally have been the two rival views of American power: one view that focuses on America as America, and on defending a more exclusive form of American nationalism; and another view that focuses on America as a country that can shape the world. The first represents a more “isolationist” approach to America in the world, against the second, a more “imperial” one.
For Ajami, Obama and his supporters have broken out of this old duality. “In their view, we can make our way in the world without the encumbrance of ‘hard’ power. We would offer other nations apologies for the way we carried ourselves in the aftermath of 9/11, and the foreign world would be glad for a reprieve from the time of American certitude.” Ajami goes on to explain that “Obama proceeds from the notion of American guilt: We called up the furies, he believes. Our war on terror and our war in Iraq triggered more animus. He proposes to repair for that, and offers himself (again, the biography) as a bridge to the world.”
This is, in its own way, a devastating reading of what lies ahead in the United States. For all the details over specific foreign policy options today being discussed in the election campaigns, there is a more fundamental vacuum in both parties when it comes to defining America’s destiny abroad. Obama seems to accept an America in decline, seems to embrace an America that accepts global moral relativism so that the country will refuse to impose its values on others. McCain, from an older generation, has proven less timid in reaffirming established American values, but in the coming years can his approach endure in a changing global environment? Both men have not yet found, nor greatly concerned themselves with, developing a new foreign policy ethos for the U.S.
That will have important repercussions in the Middle East, where the US continues to be heavily involved. McCain, more than Obama, has referred in his rhetoric to spreading democracy in the region. However, at this point that seems more an empty statement of intention than the outline of a policy the candidate is dying to implement. Indeed, few candidates seemed more committed to democratization than George W. Bush; the ideal was even at the center of the president’s second inaugural address. Despite this, the Bush administration has pretty much returned to the habits of administrations past, back to business as usual with Arab despotisms, most recently that of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
In light of that, it might be a bit much to expect that McCain will push even harder than Bush on democracy when the situation in the Middle East, now characterized by the rise of Iran, imposes ever closer cooperation with Iran’s adversaries, all of whom happen to be autocrats.
And what of Obama? The Democratic candidate has repeatedly said he would open a “dialogue” with Iran — and in all likelihood he might do the same with Syria. The real issue is not dialogue in itself; it is whether Obama is clear about what the conditions of the dialogues need to be, and what he must gain for talking to the other side. If that is not clear, and nothing in Obama’s comments in recent months on the aims of a dialogue suggest it is, then the US could face a problem in the region as it pursues dialogue for dialogue’s sake, its justification being solely the fact that George W. Bush refused to engage in dialogue.
The dearth of foreign policy lucidity on both sides of the electoral divide is worrisome. McCain seems more certain of the America he wants, which is better than Obama; but the country that George W. Bush leaves behind is not one that can afford to remain locked in the same foreign- policy mindset, regardless of Bush’s unsung successes. As for Obama, his inexperience suggests that the America he leads may be one cast adrift in the world, without a compass. We in the Middle East had better beware.