Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Historians are trained to bristle at the term “unprecedented.” We watch journalists hyperventilate and hype stories as we acknowledge we have seen it all before with a world-weary sigh. But Barack Obama’s whirlwind world tour is certainly un... usual. True, senators travel all the time, jetting around the world with more zeal than Phineas Fogg or the Harlem Globetrotters. (Memo to the under-thirty crowd, for Phineas Fogg check out “Around the World in Eighty Days,” for Harlem Globetrotters check out any old geezer who grew up in the Seventies). True, John McCain himself has visited Iraq and just last month made a foreign policy speech in Ottawa, the capital of that country to the north of the United States. But to appreciate the um, out-of-the-box nature of Obama’s trip, consider his trip in broader historical perspective – and check out the amazing coverage he received.
Thinking historically, let us remember that it was not until the twentieth century that a president in office actually traveled abroad. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt visited Central America to supervise the construction of the Panama Canal. In December, 1918, when Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris for World War I peace negotiations, he stayed abroad for all but ten days of the next six months, returning to Washington in July 1919. More recently, it would have been inconceivable during the 1944 election, at the height of World War II, for the Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey to drop by Winston Churchill or Josef Stalin for a quick chat while campaigning against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And in October, 1952, Dwight Eisenhower generated coast-to-coast headlines with a simple, dramatic, promise of an intention to travel, proclaiming, “I shall go to Korea.”
The Eisenhower pledge is worth remembering because, like Barack Obama’s Middle East and European tour, it was all about stagecraft more than statesmanship. When the great hero of World War II promised to go to Korea, he was playing to Americans’ hopes that his presence would magically solve the Far Eastern mess. In this case, the alchemy is supposed to have a reverse flow: Democrats are hoping that by not making a mess of it, the drama of overseas travel will burnish Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials – and boost his standing as a leader.
Midway through the trip, the magic seems to be working. Most important of all, Obama has avoided a major gaffe. But beyond the avoidance of the negative, the level of coverage has been iconic, not just presidential. Even before delivery, his Berlin speech was being compared with John Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall” – two of the most influential presidential addresses in history. The three-network-news anchor honor guard accompanying Obama guaranteed Pope-level coverage. This trip has proved once again that not only is Obama’s candidacy the most exciting political story of the decade, but that the election remains all-Obama-all-the-time; this election is Obama’s to win or lose.
There are two, contradictory, lessons one hopes Obama will draw from his excellent adventures. His foreign policy needs more nuance and more passion. The simplistic sloganeering the campaign trail demands simply does not fit the Middle Eastern realities. Only a fanatic could visit Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel without realizing just how messy and multi-dimensional each conflict is. Seeing each of those situations should be humbling for a potential president, reminding him of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that the easy decisions are made outside the Oval Office, only the impossible problems end up on the president’s desk.
At the same time, Obama risks being too cool, too detached, especially on core issues such as the fight against terrorism. He says the right thing, as he did after the heinous bulldozer attack in central Jerusalem, just blocks from his hotel; but many listeners are never sure how deeply he cares about the issue. This latest Palestinian terror attack, executed by an East Jerusalem resident with Israeli papers, may give Barack Obama what we could term his John Kennedy-Joschka Fischer wake-up call. John Kennedy only realized the depths of poverty in America when he visited Appalachia during the 1960 West Virginia primary. Joschka Fischer was the German foreign minister who was visiting Israel in June 2002, when a suicide bomber murdered 21 young Israeli revelers outside the Dolphinarium disco. Fischer also had teenager children and had recently jogged right in front of that site. He subsequently referred to that moment as “ the terrible terror attack on the kids in the Dolphinarium” and was much more passionate in denouncing Palestinian terrorism.
Both Kennedy and Fischer were intellectuals in politics. Each was “cool,” and not afraid of nuance, but also not afraid of passion. Obama could do well by emulating both – and showing that, in the wake of what he has learned and experienced, he will be a muscular moderate as leader, rooted in principles, angry when core values are assailed, but nimble and adaptable to the changing conditions of a chaotic world.
Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over foreign policy this week - or did they? While some headlines emphasized the two candidates' differences -proclaiming "McCain Slams Obama on Iraq Surge," the two also agreed on many important fundamentals - as well as key policies. Their points of overlap demonstrate that both are patriots, both are"anti-terror," both seek an American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the previous sentence needs to be written, of course, illustrates the absurd extremes to which so many partisan critics take the polarizing discourse about the candidates.
Characteristically - and in fairness, due to the setting -- Obama's speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington was more sweeping, more visionary, more programmatic. McCain's response at a town hall meeting was more focused, more hands-on, more strategic.
Obama built his speech by remembering America's Cold War containment policy, embracing George Marshall's faith in"judgment," mixing what we now call"hard" and"soft" power. Before finishing with an inspirational return to his history lesson, Obama demonstrated his commitment to righting the wrongs of the Bush years with a deft combination of self-sacrifice, selflessness, muscle-flexing and nation-building -- in the United States and abroad. He sees foreign policy - like domestic policy - as a vehicle for national renewal, for encouraging Americans to work together and build a national sense of mission and community, while defending their nation and improving the world. Less loftily, Obama proclaimed"five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century."
Obviously, the rhetoric of a campaign speech does not necessarily anticipate a president's track record in the Oval Office. But the bulk of Obama's speech would be thoroughly acceptable to most Ronald Reagan Republicans. In particular, both Obama and McCain agreed about the need to beef up the American troop presence in Afghanistan.
In response, John McCain focused part of his stump speech in New Mexico on Obama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than delivering a more formal foreign policy address. Highlighting the contrast between the young, eloquent, intellectual visionary and the wizened warrior, McCain came out swinging,"I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars," McCain told his Albuquerque audience."And if I'm elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory, I know how to do that." Sharpening his elbows, McCain said:"In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander in chief doesn't get a learning curve." And more directly, he mocked his opponent, reading two Obama quotations, one back in January 2007 doubting the surge would work, and a second one a year later, acknowledging that more troops in Iraq led to more stability."My friends, flip-floppers all over the world are enraged," McCain chuckled.
In fact, both candidates are converging, not only about Afghanistan. Both understand that in the wake of the Bush presidency, America needs to experience an economic, diplomatic, and ideological renewal. Obama is more explicit about that - but McCain rides heavily on the fact that he was calling for what became the"surge" while George W. Bush was still blindly defending"Rummy" - Donald Rumsfeld - and pooh-poohing reports of chaos in Baghdad. And even on Iraq, Obama is cautiously, cleverly, and responsibly, narrowing the gap between his policies and McCain's. Obama still talks about giving the military"a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war" - an interesting choice of words considering that the traditional goal of most militaries is to win the war not just end it. Still, analysts noted that Obama's sixteen month timetable, now is set to begin on Inauguration Day - six months from now, and he spoke about a"residual" force remaining. Clearly, as the possibility that he just might become Commander-in-Chief grows, Obama is realizing that his rhetoric and his postures may have serious life-and-death implications.
This convergence in a campaign is good. It is not just the gravitational pull to the center we often see after primaries. It is not just the"oh, boy, I might be president" flight from irresponsibility. It is also precisely what the American people want. A Washington Post poll this week found that 78 percent of those surveyed,"said it is more important for a candidate to adjust positions to changing circumstances than to stick to his original stands (18 percent prioritize consistency)." By this poll, more than three-quarters of the American people are more mature than most reporters and bloggers, partisans and pols. The challenge is for the candidates to show they can campaign vigorously, disagree passionately on some issues, while still reassuring the American people they understand that they both share many common values, common dreams, and common-sense policies.
The Democrats’ dilemma, namely how to blast President George W. Bush without being accused of bashing America, prompted Sen. Barack Obama to affirm his patriotism in Independence, Mo., last week. Obama correctly insisted that “no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism,” and patriots sometimes have a duty to dissent. But he avoided connecting patriotism to the idea of American nationalism, which is the very concept explaining why we need countries at all.
Discussions about patriotism, meaning love of country, frequently degenerate into absurd competitions to prove who loves his country more, or accusations that one candidate does not love the country enough. We end up focusing on whether candidates wear lapel pins, place their hands on their chests when singing the national anthem, or sing it on key. The conversation about nationalism goes deeper, about the very reason for organizing smaller communities into larger countries and into the vision of just what kind of nation we want to be.
Unfortunately, the great crimes of the 20th century made nationalism a dirty word to many. Defined by disasters like Bosnia’s brutality and Nazism’s horrors, the concept became linked with parochialism, xenophobia, prejudice, extremism, militarism and mass murder. It became trendy to celebrate the European Union as the “post-national” wave of the future. This ignores how Germanic Germans remain, how French the French still are. In fact, nationalism remains the world’s central organizing principle, with 192 nation-states in the United Nations.
Nationalism has unleashed great cruelty. But it has fueled many modern miracles, including America’s great liberal democratic experiment. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have stayed united, settled the West, won world wars, explored space, mass-produced prosperity, spread essential rights or created the Internet, which, remember, was invented as a tool for national defense.
When Abraham Lincoln invoked “the mystic chords of memory,” he reminded Americans of the appealing ideals that united them as one nation. When Ronald Reagan saluted John Winthrop’s “shining city upon the hill,” he, too, summoned a mythic national past to push the country toward a better future. At its best, nationalism gets people dreaming and working together and behaving better than they might if they were just thinking selfishly or too locally.
Every day, Americans fulfill national ideals, living, and often quoting, the enduring phrases from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans enjoy a deep commitment to human life, unprecedented amounts of liberty and massive opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.
Thomas Jefferson’s five-word affirmation in the Declaration of Independence - that all men are created equal - has become impressively more inclusive over time. Since 1776, the phrase has empowered African-Americans, women, the poor and immigrants, inviting them to enjoy more and more of America’s goodies.
Nationalism focuses on “we the people,” not just the “I”; nationalism is about each nation’s romance with the land and myths about the past. Mining group pride and common goals can elevate not denigrate, include not exclude.
Lincoln’s cautious but egalitarian nationalism helped Northerners evolve beyond their initial racism to make the fight for union a fight against black slavery. Theodore Roosevelt’s romantic, upbeat patriotism helped industrializing Americans create a communal counterbalance to business power and sing a collective song of American altruism. Franklin Roosevelt’s can-do, optimistic communalism reassured and mobilized Americans during the dark days of the Depression, then inspired Americans to share their Four Freedoms with the rest of the world.
The American revolutionaries we honor on July 4 were reluctant revolutionaries - they did not want to reject England, the mother country. But, by defending themselves, they became ardent nationalists. On this 232nd anniversary of their great leap of faith, we can demonstrate our patriotism and champion its connection to our pride in our nationalism. Patriotism is about “my country, right or wrong”; nationalism about how my country goes about righting wrongs and forging a common good.
In this presidential campaign, we should seek a worthy successor to our tradition of inspirational nationalists. Let’s make this presidential campaign about competing centrist visions for modern American nationalism - acknowledging its strengths and potential to do good in the world - rather than engaging in a petty debate maligning either candidate’s patriotism.
This piece was first published in Newsday, July 6, 2008.
Arianna Huffington's slam on centrism - "Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers" -- proves that the struggle for the soul of Barack Obama continues. Moderate voices must stand tall and strong against the partisans pulling him to the left. Obama's meteoric rise to national prominence -- and his victory in the Democratic primaries -- resulted from the lyrical centrism of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Without that message of unity, moderation, centrism, civility, and sanity, Obama would be just another junior senator. If Obama forgets the origins of his brief career and lurches left, he risks returning to his Senate seat in the fall of 2008, behind even Hillary Rodham Clinton in the pecking order.
Huffington’s post on this issue rests on a false choice between principled extremism and centrist pandering. Huffington caricatures “tacking to the center” as “watering down th[e] brand,” playing to the “fence sitters,” and “dilut[ing]” Obama’s “own positioning.” Huffington fails to understand that being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover. Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.
Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America's greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.
All these presidents succeeded because they understood that they had to play to the middle. Part of the reason why so many Americans are so angry with the current administration comes from George W. Bush’s disdain for the center. By not reaching out sufficiently, Bush has left many Americans alienated from his policies –and from America’s democracy.
Democracy is ultimately a fragile flower. Presidents – and presidential candidates – have to tend it carefully, remembering that the consent we who are governed grant is implied, and rests on a collective act of good will. Great presidents tap into a broad, mainstream strain of American nationalism that keeps this nation of now over 300 million people united and, on the whole, even-tempered.
Arianna Huffington also erred in claiming that previous Democratic nominees stumbled when they shifted to the center. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not lose because they were too centrist; they lost because each lacked an effective message – and allowed their opponents to define them. Huffington also conveniently overlooks the only Democrat to win a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton, who repeatedly played to the center, and triumphed.
For Democrats to win in 2008 -- and for America to heal and to prosper – Barack Obama needs to find his centrist voice, showing that he can bring a new tone to American politics, as well as creative, broad-based solutions to some of the pressing problems the country faces. Obama has to make sure that the Republicans do not cast him as the next George McGovern. The young Illinois Senator could learn a lot from the pantheon of democratic heroes who understood how to have core principles but also the broad centrist vision necessary to keep this country united.