Why Obama Matters

In news that is eerily reminiscent of Obama’s behind the scenes work to bring about reconciliation in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed election, Obama has now apparently gotten a rebel group in the Niger Delta to consider a ceasefire with the Nigerian federal government. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta sent out a statement:

“The MEND command is seriously considering a temporary ceasefire appeal by Senator Barack Obama. Obama is someone we respect and hold in high esteem. The period of halting attacks, we hope, when considered, will afford the Nigerian government the opportunity to address the issues with Henry Okah, including improving his living conditions and having access to a bible which he has requested for but was denied,” they said.

This is why Obama matters. It comes back to what Andrew Sullivan wrote in his seminal “Goodbye to All That” article for the Atlantic:

A mosaic of peopleImage by tsevis via Flickr

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of

both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies is his record on the Iraq War. He is the only major candidate to have clearly opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, negotiating with neighboring states, engaging America’s estranged allies, tamping down regional violence. Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never had suspicious motives toward Iraq, has no interest in occupying it indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful consequences of long-term occupation.

Could George W. Bush get Nigerian militants to even take him seriously? No, he has failed miserably and squandered America’s soft power. Could Hillary Clinton or John McCain? Probably not. They both represent more of the same. Their blustering threats to “obliterate” countries and blindness the impact of our actions abroad show that they would continue to blunder around the world pissing other countries off. Obama, on the other hand has instant credibility. He is visibly different. His promised policies are different. He has run on ending the mindset that led us into Iraq and his advisers talk of a foreign policy that takes “dignity promotion” into account.

It’s not as if the Niger Delta is immaterial to the United States. Whereas Hillary Clinton is running around Indiana and North Carolina pandering to everyone who will listen about suspending the gas tax to reduce gas prices, Obama, if the ceasefire goes through, will probably have done much more to reduce the price of gas for Americans. Instability in the Niger Delta has been one of the major things driving up global oil prices. There have been attacks on oil infrastructure and oil workers have been killed. Shell had to cut production after a raid by rebels just this week. If Obama can make progress towards reducing the violence in Nigeria it would have a substantial impact on oil prices. The contrast couldn’t be clearer.

Hat Tip: Ben Smith

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