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.