Obama and ‘re-branding’

OBAMA AND ‘RE-BRANDING’….This came up quite a bit a couple of weeks ago, after the annoying Bob Kerrey brouhaha, but it’s also been a part of the campaign debate for months: would Barack Obama’s ethnic and racial background help improve the United States’ image internationally, if he’s elected?

Reza Aslan argues that the “chattering classes” who are encouraged by Obama’s potential impact around the world are mistaken.

[I]n the words of the French foreign policy analyst Dominique Moisi, “The very moment he appears on the world’s television screens, victorious and smiling, America’s image and soft power would experience something like a Copernican revolution.”

As someone who once was that young Muslim boy everyone seems to be imagining (albeit in Iran rather than Egypt), I’ll let you in on a secret: He could not care less who the president of the United States is.

Aslan’s point seems incontrovertible: U.S. critics internationally care about the president’s policies, not the president’s ethnicity. If there’s a competition between image and substance, the result isn’t even close. “That is how the post-Bush ‘war on terror’ must be handled,” Aslan wrote. “Not by ‘re-branding’ the mess George W. Bush has made, but by actually fixing it.”

And while this is obviously true, I think there are a couple of angles to this that make Aslan’s thesis less persuasive.

First, Aslan argued from personal experience, growing up in Iran, that a young Muslim critic of the United States living in the Middle East “couldn’t name three U.S. presidents if he tried.” But I’m curious, hasn’t the proliferation of the modern media changed this equation a bit from Aslan’s youth?

I’m reminded of this recent piece from Slate’s Fred Kaplan, who encouraged readers to send him suggestions for improving America’s reputation on the global stage. Most of the responses came from foreigners or from Americans living abroad, and this was the most common recommendation:

Several readers emphasize that many foreigners, even those with high levels of education, have no concept of American life. They don’t know that most Americans are religious people. They don’t know that most of us aren’t wildly rich. They’re skeptical of reports that many black people live here — or dismiss them as not “real Americans.”….And so the most prominent suggestion on how to improve America’s face in the world — a suggestion made by well over half of those who wrote me — is to send the world more American faces and to bring more of the world’s faces into America.

….An American exchange student in Jordan writes of the foreigners he’s met: “Once they see Americans — blacks, Jews, Asians, and ‘real’ Americans, as they call blonde-haired Caucasians — and hear their diverse opinions on issues from the War in Iraq to pop music, then people realize how much diversity there is in our country.”

Are we to believe, given this, that electing a black man as president of the United States would have no effect on international perceptions? Granted, this would not exactly produce “epiphanies” for jihadists throughout the region — but no one’s saying it would. We’re just talking about a modest step towards improving the nation’s reputation, in the context of “soft power,” not “hard power.”

Second, Aslan’s argument seems to be criticism of Obama, but it need not be. As far as I can tell, Obama has never said that his background would improve America’s standing in the world. Indeed, Aslan’s piece didn’t cite any examples — it instead criticized Andrew Sullivan and the Boston Globe’s editorial board for making the arguments.

I’ve been watching Obama pretty closely for a year, and he’s not talking about “re-branding”; he’s been fairly specific about policy — in several speeches and in his Foreign Affairs article — detailing how he would change (read: improve) U.S. foreign policy. One can agree or disagree with his vision, but Aslan’s criticism seems to be directed at Obama supporters, not Obama himself.

I think the point Obama backers have tried to make in this discussion is that his background might help, and that seems to be a fair point. It’s not the be-all, end-all to a successful counter-terrorism campaign; it won’t end al Qaeda recruiting; and it won’t suddenly make the United States popular in the Middle East. The impact, in all likelihood, would be modest.

But it’d be something positive. As Kevin recently put it, “[I]n 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.”