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January 24, 2007

Obama and World Opinion
Posted by Rosa Brooks

Obama's Muslim connections will bother a handful of people (Virgil Goode, my illustrious congressman, comes to mind...), and there is no doubt at all that those who don't like him will try to use his name and background to discredit him. They probably won't be subtle, though, and I doubt their efforts will have any effect on the presidential race, one way or the other. Those who try to discredit Obama through snide jokes about his name or references to his background will probably only succeed in discrediting themselves (cf. "Macaca.")

Obama's atypical background should be considered a plus, not a minus. For one thing, as Shadi suggests, knowing a little something about the rest of the world is surely good-- especially in this globalized era.

Shadi also notes that the US is trying to win the hearts and minds of people in the Muslim world-- and it's here that someone like Obama could be key to regaining some of the respect and credibility the US has lost in the past five years. On Monday, the BBC released a new poll highlighting what prior polls have also shown: global public opinion has turned sharply against the US as a result of Guantanamo, Iraq, and other US policies in the Middle East. The BBC polled more than 26,000 people in 25 countries. 29% said they think the US role in the world is "mainly positive," and 52% described the US role as "mainly negative."     Three-fourths of those polled disapproved of US policy in Iraq, and  "Sixty-five percent disapproved of U.S. policy on last year's war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, 60 percent of its handling of Iran's nuclear programme."

It's going to take a very long time for us to repair the damage done to our global image by misguided Bush Administration policies, but some big symbolic shift might help enormously. If Americans elected as president an African-American man with close family ties to Indonesia and Kenya, Christianity and Islam, it might go far towards weakening the notion that the US is the land of know-nothing xenophobes and Islamaphobes.

Obviously, there are things more important than symbolism-- sound policies, for a start-- and at this early stage of the race, Obama's ability to articulate a persuasive and smart policy agenda remains to be seen. But for what it's worth, I think that far from being a problem, Obama's cosmopolitan background could end up being a big plus to the many Americans who are worried about repairing our damaged global reputation.


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