By Khaled Diab
Does Obama's choice of running mate mean he's shaping up to be just another establishment candidate for the White House?
Not one to rest on his laurels, Barack Obama is already delivering on his promise of change – albeit in the wrong direction. He has changed his image from that of the sophisticated, sensible and sensitive ‘outsider' to become another establishment figure.
Since his nomination, the recently progressive senator has taken a sharp turn to the right, and morphed, in terms of foreign policy rhetoric at least, into a ‘Republican lite' candidate. With his selection of Joe Biden, who can best be described as a dovish hawk, the transformation seems complete, as the man resembles John McCain on foreign policy.
Although Biden is generally more enlightened and knowledgeable in foreign policy issues than the Bush administration, there are too many parallels that do not bode so well. He supported the invasion of Iraq and his imperial swagger and arrogance is unlikely to go down well among ordinary Arabs: “It makes a lot of sense to change the map of the Middle East,” he once said.
Interestingly, he claimed that: “Building a democracy that is based upon the notion of the rule of the majority is a disaster for us.” But I'm confused, what other kind of democracy is other?
Unperturbed by the US's dismal record in the region, he talks a lot about “nation building” and has described Paul Wolfowitz, a major architect of the Iraq war, as an “idealist”. To his credit, Biden has criticised the current administration's disdain for “soft power”, pointing out that: “There is a need… to establish the soil under which the seeds of liberal democratic institutions can take root.”
Being a political sceptic, I have not expected Obama to challenge significantly US foreign policy conventions – and I have warned against inflated expectations that he would somehow bring a “new dawn”.
In the Middle East, opinion is divided over the significance of Biden's appointment. The general consensus among Arabs is that anyone would be better than the current Bush administration.
“The people of the region have endured nearly eight years of Bush's rudderless policy and ill-advised decisions… Most Arabs are now ready for a changing of the guard at the White House, regardless of who the American people might choose,” an editorial in the Lebanese Daily Star remarked. “If the Obama-Biden camp edges ahead in the polls, the region's [autocratic] leaders had better start preparing themselves for a diplomatic grilling.”
“Picking Biden, whose views on certain regional issues, such as dividing Iraq along sectarian lines and his staunch support for Israel, have disappointed Arabs,” a Gulf News editorial observed. “However, they trust that Obama is not a ‘war' president. They also recognise that Biden is a sharp foreign policy man.”
Some were less flattering. “Obama's choice of deputy confirms… that the real change he is after is a personal one: to leap from his seat in the Senate to the presidential chair.” Said Mahyo writes in the Third Power.
In a rare show of unity, Iraqis from across the political spectrum criticised Obama's choice because of their opposition to Biden's proposal to divide Iraq into a loose federation of autonomous states.
Despite Biden's pro-Israel credentials and his self-described status as a “Zionist”, there remain doubts in Israel, although Israelis have now warmed more to the Obama ticket. “Biden is a firm supporter of Israel, but the way he sees the US's role in the Middle East doesn't necessarily reflect Jerusalem's ideal of the ideal ‘American partner',” Natasha Mozgovaya wrote in Haaretz.
But he seems to tick the right boxes for many American Jews. Speculating on whether McCain would choose Joe Lieberman, perhaps the best-known Jewish politician in America, the Jerusalem Post noted: “While Lieberman is a favourite on the single issue of Israel, [Biden] is more in synch with Jewish voters on the broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues.”
Debra Adler, an American Jew I know who has been involved closely with the Obama campaign, called Biden a “safe choice” and part of Obama's “attempt to place himself in the light of practical policy, rather than as the brash idealist many of us came to love.”
“That's okay by me,” she added, “because the brash idealists are never successful, so I'd like to think that his inner-idealist is driving [him].”
Naturally, I realise that Obama's “outsider” image, his skin colour, his worldview, and even his name could prove to be a losing combination for him. But this poses the difficult question of how much a leader should follow popular opinion and various interest groups in order to get elected and how much he should challenge an unhealthy status quo. Many were hoping that Obama would have the courage to follow his convictions, and persuade the electorate to share in his vision.
In addition, there is a depressing track record of leaders who embrace the centre to get elected and then spend their entire term in office determined to prove that they're not “soft” or anti-big business, such as New Labour in the UK. When Tony Blair was elected in 1997, a lot of hope was pinned on him to deliver significant change. But “Tory” Blair pretty much defected to the Conservative party on many issues and even went to war in Iraq against his own party's will and with the support of the opposition.
Hopefully, Obama, if elected, would not be as disastrous as Blair, and will start steering the US along a more enlightened course. But his presidency is likely to leave unchanged many US policies – such as the propping up of friendly dictators, the legalised corporate pillaging of Iraq and the unbalanced approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict – that are detrimental to the region's future.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 30 August 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest