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The Whole World Is Watching

September 18, 2008 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Earlier this year, I met with a foreign ambassador who, when asked what he thought about America's zany primary election season, readily confessed that he had a rooting interest in the outcome.

"We're all hoping that [Sen. Barack] Obama will win," the ambassador confided.

While casting no aspersions on the Republicans, the prospect of an American president with whom the Third World identifies clearly excited the diplomat who added, as if it were any secret, that most people in his country and elsewhere around the globe felt the same way.

His response has been echoed regularly in much of the foreign coverage of the election, most unabashedly by a recent column in Britain's Guardian, in which journalist Jonathan Freedland warned that, if American voters ignore the desire of the rest of the world for a victory by the Democrats, the consequences might be ominous.

Turning Our Backs
"If Americans choose [Republican candidate Sen. John] McCain," he thundered, "they will be turning their back on the rest of the world." Freedland understands "that even to mention Obama's support around the world is to hurt him ... But what does that say about today's America, that the world's esteem is now unwanted?"

Obama is surely too shrewd to let such sentiments pass from his own lips as Sen. John Kerry foolishly did during his own failed presidential candidacy in 2004, when he let drop that some unidentified foreign leaders had told him they were hoping he'd beat President Bush. Kerry paid dearly for flaunting himself as the man the French wanted in the White House.

While this is not a Democratic talking point, it does faintly echo the idea, widely held by Bush's numerous critics, that the administration squandered the post-Sept. 11 sympathy for the United States and that its penchant for unilateral actions -- and contempt for the United Nations -- has made a Democratic victory imperative.

The question remains what, if anything, Americans should think about this.

As a nation whose founding document, the Declaration of Independence, speaks of the need for a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind," the question is not illegitimate. The mandate for allies in the war against Islamist terror has been made clear in the last decade.

Yet, while Europeans assume that everyone shares their belief in their superior moral and political vision, Americans have historically rejected such theories. Indeed, one of the founding ideas that established our culture was that its legitimacy rested on the concept of American exceptionalism.

European arrogance aside, the notion that London or Paris, not to mention America's "friends" in the Middle East (who are, other than the State of Israel, hard to distinguish from our enemies), have anything to teach us these days about foreign policy morality is a difficult sell.

Europeans may think themselves more civilized, but can one really believe that a continent where anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel is not only on the rise, but has found a home among intellectuals and elites, is smarter than Washington about the touchstone issues of our day?

It isn't likely that either Republicans or Democrats will ever feel very comfortable placing the defense of Western values or security in the hands of the United Nations that's infested with contempt for Jews and Zionism.

What writers like Freedland are also ignoring is the very real possibility that an Obama presidency will disappoint even its most fervent foreign fans.

Once the euphoria over his election abroad settles down, the rest of the world will still be confronted by an American government that will be committed to the war in Afghanistan and unlikely to be unwilling to sabotage recent successes of U.S. forces in Iraq by a precipitate withdrawal.

Even more to the point, as the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program grows, the gap between American policy and the inclinations of our Western allies will not be shrinking. It is true that Obama talks of meeting with rogue regimes like Iran without preconditions. But the almost-certain failure of such conclaves would increase the odds of confrontation, not lessen them.

Some may actually believe that Obama's charms will miraculously convince Europeans to adopt really tough sanctions and persuade the world to follow our lead. But such expectations are based more on a good opinion of Obama than a grasp of European realities.

No matter who wins here in November, Europe isn't going to do much about Iran for a variety of reasons, most of which have to do with a lack of will to defend its own values. The election of Obama would not eliminate the likelihood that the next president will have to take action on Iran and its apocalyptic threats, and that his policies will necessarily consist of things that our European friends won't like.

Kissinger's Comeback
Equally ironic is the possibility that a McCain administration wouldn't be as bad for the Euros as they might think.

For all of the talk this year about the influence of foreign policy advisers on the candidates, one of the little-discussed elements is the fact that McCain counts Henry Kissinger as one of his advisers.

Kissinger remains, as he was during his years in power, a staunch advocate of realpolitik and a critic of Bush's philosophy of promoting democracy around the globe.

Touting his own detente policies of the 1970s toward the former Soviet Union, Kissinger told a gathering of Republicans at their recent national convention that the next administration ought to do the same with both a revived Russia and an increasingly dangerous -- and still-communist -- China.

If McCain follows his advice, and those of other so-called "realists" who are hoping to gain posts in his administration at the expense of their neo-conservative rivals, then the Republican may find himself carrying out policies in which, as Kissinger says, the goal will be to "normalize" our relations with tyrants, rather than to confront them. That regrettable possibility would delight Europeans and cause dismay among Americans who remember that Kissinger's ideas had to be reversed by Ronald Reagan before the stage was set for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

America needs no replay of Kissinger's vision, whether it is carried out by a Democrat or a Republican.

It may well be inevitable that, with the imperative of stopping the nightmare scenario of Iranian nukes looming before us and the necessity of using tactics harsher than mere talk, the next president -- whether his name is Obama or McCain -- is going to have to tell the Europeans to like it or lump it. 

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