Elections as Signal II

I realize that there is a significant debate around whether Bob Kerrey is a cat’s paw for Clinton campaign race bating directed at Barack Obama — and the Clinton campaign has had some perfidious truck with the right-wing sewer. But again, there’s debate about whether what he said was sincere or really a backhanded compliment (see e.g. Kleiman, Mark, “Kerrey and ‘Barack Hussein Obama’,” The Reality-Based Community, 16 December 2007). I think there’s reason to think that he’s sincere, but whatever the case, since he expresses the internationalist potential of Obama qua icon — or as Frank says, as signifier — so well, I’m going to excerpt it at my own risk:

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 billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal.

Kevin Drum wrote a very well expressed explication of this sentiment at the time (“Fighting Terrorism,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 17 December 2007):

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.

For today’s jihadists, the answer is hard power. There’s no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow’s jihadists, the answer is soft power. As long as a substantial fraction of the Islamic world supports or tolerates jihadism, we’ll never stop the production of new terrorists or seriously reduce their effectiveness. But if that support dries up, we can win. This is where our foreign policy should be focused, and the fact that it hasn’t been for the past six years — that, in fact, we’ve gone backward on this score — is by far the most calamitous aspect of George Bush’s disastrous war on terror.

One of the amazing things about the six years since 11 September 2001 is that the importance of tamping down support for extremists among moderate Moslems is something that George W. Bush, at least in speech, understands. When it comes time to execute policy, it all goes out the window — actually a common feature of the Bush presidency. It’s time to address this central shortfalling.