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Winning Hearts and Minds

Kevin Drum takes issue with my dismissal of the idea, floated by Bob Kerrey, that electing a guy with the middle name “Hussein” would help America reach out to Muslims.

Kerrey wasn’t suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn’t. But terrorists can’t function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao’s sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don’t have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It’s why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

That’s a fair reading of Kerrey’s argument and my initial reaction was perhaps too glib. I’m still dubious, however, on the merits.

I agree that having a black man with a Muslim father as president would highlight both our diversity and our inclusiveness. But I don’t believe that the primary — or even a significant — source of our problems with the Muslim world is that they perceive our presidents as too white or our culture as too homogeneous. Rather, the clash is over policy.

Those who allow the jihadists to swim in their midst think we use our military hegemony to impose our will on their part of the world, use our economic power to enforce trade regimes that disadvantage them, and corrupt their culture with the ubiquity of our popular culture exports. Those things are not going to change because of the pigmentation or genealogy or middle name of our president.

Likewise, there’s something to the idea that, as Kerrey also suggests, Obama “can speak to underperforming Black youth in a way that no other candidate can.” But that only goes so far. Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court and George W. Bush appointed the first female National Security Adviser and first black Secretary of State. Blacks still vote overwhelmingly for Democrats and there’s still a gender gap. Policy trumps symbolism, ultimately, no matter how powerful the symbols.

Further, even policy overtures have limited impact when dealing with a community whose information is filtered through corrupt governments and clerics. When Bill Clinton was strong arming Israel to make difficult concessions to move the Palestinian peace process, using American military power to bring relief to starving Muslims in war-torn Somalia and to stop Christian Serbs from attacking Bosnian Muslims and Muslim Kosovars, al Qaeda was blowing up American targets around the world.

Somehow, I don’t think a presidential name change is going to make the difference.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. davod says:

    I really think you should stop making excuses for Kerry. He is part of the Clinton campaign and, as such, he used Hussein as part of the political campaign.

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  2. John425 says:

    Nah, Kerrey is just pulling a different version of the Shaheen ploy. Bringing the issue up without HillaryGang taking any heat for it and get the folks out in the hustings talking and worrying about it.

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  3. Tlaloc says:

    For the sake of argument-
    I seem to recall you believe that Zalmay Khalilzad did a good job as ambassador to Iraq (feel free to correct me if this is not the case). Do you not suspect that his name had some bearing on this? Would a midwestern WASP gotten the same results even if the policy was identical?

    I think you have to make allowances that everyone has at least a little prejudice towards their own. It may not be noble to play into that but when has politics ever been noble?

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  4. James Joyner says:

    Zalmay Khalilzad did a good job as ambassador to Iraq

    Then again, John Abizaid didn’t do a particularly good job as CENTCOM commander despite his name and heritage — and, unlike Obama, he’s a fluid Arab speaker and Middle East expert.

    Now, if your argument is just “couldn’t hurt,” then sure. I’m just saying that it’s not going to make all that much difference — and certainly not enough to vote for him for president.

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  5. Ending the War…

    ENDING THE WAR….Matt Yglesias links to the latest NYT/CBS poll about Iraq, and the results are clear: more than 70% of the country thinks we should leave within two years or less:As you can see, virtually nobody in the United……

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  6. Tlaloc says:

    Now, if your argument is just “couldn’t hurt,” then sure. I’m just saying that it’s not going to make all that much difference — and certainly not enough to vote for him for president.

    I’d go slightly farther and say “could help a little,” but I agree: if you think the policy is bad in the first place the guy’s name is not going to convince you.

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  7. Fighting Terrorism…

    FIGHTING TERRORISM….Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, asked about Barack Obama yesterday, said: “I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a……

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  8. Beldar says:

    Actually, the fact that Obama professes to be a Christian notwithstanding his middle name and his early exposure to Islam could be used by Islamic extremist enemies of the United States as evidence that he’s a traitor to Islam, not just an ordinary infidel.

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  9. Tano says:

    “I’m just saying that it’s not going to make all that much difference — and certainly not enough to vote for him for president.”

    Well, since the topic here is what Bob Kerrey said, and he said it in the context of endorsing Hillary, I dont think one can conclude that anyone is putting forth the Hussein issue as a sufficient reason to vote for the guy.

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  10. Tlaloc says:

    Actually, the fact that Obama professes to be a Christian notwithstanding his middle name and his early exposure to Islam could be used by Islamic extremist enemies of the United States as evidence that he’s a traitor to Islam, not just an ordinary infidel.

    Okay. Now actually read the post, since it directly addresses your contention.

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  11. John Burgess says:

    Beldar: Since fundamentalist Muslims already believe that all people are born Muslim, but are pulled away from it through family, culture, brainwashing, whatever, Obama’s not in any particular danger.

    If he had ‘reverted’ to Islam and then changed back, he’d have problems.

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  12. Paul says:

    I think James’ last point is his strongest, but only right in part. Al Qaeda hatched the 9/11 attacks against an America led by Bill Clinton, not George Bush. That should be pretty sobering for anyone who thinks that we can simply drop Bush and be loved. In 2009 and probably 2029 the people who are in Al Qaeda today will hate us about the same whether we elect Duncan Hunter or Dennis Kucinich or anyone in between. But it is a huge mistake to think of the Muslim world as monolithic and that the entire Muslim population is beyond reach. Many can potentially be turned on or off by the American message; I have no doubt of that from my own travels in several Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. These moderates are critical for us because the United States cannot defeat Al Qaeda, only the eventual success of moderates from within the various Muslim nations can do that, if it can be done at all. Obama isn’t the only one who can improve the perception of the US in moderate Muslim circles, but he might be the best available this election (just judging on this issue alone). And it certainly would be good if we would at least switch to a President that wouldn’t invite Muslim heads of state to come out to Crawford to do keg-stands at a pig pickin.

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  13. davod says:

    “Since fundamentalist Muslims already believe that all people are born Muslim, but are pulled away from it through family, culture, brainwashing, whatever, Obama’s not in any particular danger.”

    I read earlier that Obama’s father was an atheist. There is no such thing in the Muslim world. If his family was Muslim then the father was Muslim and that makes Obama a Muslim in the eyes of Islam. If he has moved to Christianity he is a heretic and can re-convert or die.

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  14. Tano says:

    No, it was his mother who was the athiest.

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