Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Weighing Obama versus McCain

It may be that I have spent too much time living in Serbia and studying it, and that some of that fabled Serbian inat, or bloodymindedness, has rubbed off on me (readers may be surprised to learn that, as an adult, I was christened in the Serbian Orthodox Church, something that occurred not because of religious belief – of which I have none – but because I was once married to a Serbian woman). Or it may be just that I don’t like jumping on bandwagons. Be this as it may, I’m not prepared to follow the herd and endorse Obama for US president. That said, there are some powerful arguments to be made in favour of Obama, which I have been hearing from Obama supporters – such as my own girlfriend, as well as my mother – for some time now. The strong reasons for supporting McCain, however, which I have outlined in previous posts, remain. Each of the candidates offers a very different set of advantages and disadvantages, and a US citizen deciding whom to vote for should weigh them up very carefully before deciding.

One of the paradoxes of this election is that Obama is perceived by much of the liberal intelligentsia in the West as being the progressive, anti-establishment candidate, even though his likely election victory will owe much to the fact that his campaign has enjoyed much greater financial resources than McCain’s. The richer candidate is spending his way to victory; even if a large part of this funding has consisted of small donations, the hated representatives of American capitalism have hardly been falling over themselves to fund his Republican opponent. Yet Obama’s greater popularity among the liberal intelligentsia, and indeed among international opinion generally, is undeniably because he is more widely – and unfairly – seen as less quintissentially American than McCain. Obama may be just another liberal Democrat in the tradition of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, but for various reasons – in part because he would represent a dramatic break with the politics of George Bush, in part because he is black, and in part because he is undeniably charismatic – he has been invested with much greater belief on the part of the outside world as a force for change than he probably warrants.

But perception matters. And here is the strongest reason for voting for Obama. A President Obama would restore the world’s goodwill toward the US. The outside world will give him the benefit of the doubt, and the US a second chance to enjoy the degree of international popularity it enjoyed before 9/11. Conversely, a victory for McCain – particularly after such a strong and sustained poll lead enjoyed by Obama for so long – would produce another great outpouring of anti-American bile across the world, and above all from the ranks of the European chattering classes. The Republicans would, once again, be viewed as having unfairly stolen the election; their regime would enjoy little international credibility or goodwill. McCain will be painted as a continuation of Bush, and continue to be punished for the sins, real or perceived, of his predecessor. Obama would, therefore, be better able than McCain to restore the US’s network of alliances and connections, rejuvenating the US’s world leadership, or what is termed on the left as ‘American imperialism’.

Yet the reason why Obama would enjoy such international goodwill, and be able to restore the US’s world image and standing, is also the reason why one should think twice before supporting him: the world prefers soft US presidents, and Obama will undoubtedly be a much softer president than McCain. George Bush Snr betrayed the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 and acted to keep Saddam Hussein in power; Bill Clinton collaborated with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban, and strove hard to keep the US from having to intervene to stop genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia; yet neither has earned the kind of opprobrium incurred by the current US president for the crime of overthrowing Saddam. Obama has shown himself to be less committed than McCain to the defence of democratic Iraq and of independent Georgia; his restoration of US popularity globally may come at a high price.

Obama’s choice of the tough and experienced Joe Biden as his running mate does something to allay one’s concern at the foreign-policy implications of his presidency. Biden deserves credit for his opposition to aggression and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But his instincts have not always been so good: he has supported the partition of Iraq. Biden is, like Obama, pro-Greek and anti-Turkish; they would be taking over leadership of the US at a time when, given the threats posed by the hostile regimes in Moscow and Tehran, we need to maintain the Turkish alliance, and at a time when Greece’s merciless bullying of the fragile Republic of Macedonia potentially threatens disaster in the Balkans.

So the choice between Obama and McCain revolves around the question of whether it is better to have a US president who can restore the US’s global popularity and standing but is likely to be less resolute in resisting the enemies of the democratic world, or a president who will be globally unpopular but more determined in resisting our enemies.

Some readers may feel that US domestic policy should count for more in this weighing up. All well and good; I prefer Obama to McCain on domestic issues, but there are 6.7 billion people in the world, and only 300 million of them are Americans. The United States is a sophisticated system of decentralised democracy and constitutional checks and balances, and the battle between conservatism and liberalism will continue to be fought out at multiple levels throughout the country, regardless of which candidate wins. But it is foreign policy where the president’s voice counts for most. I would discount on principle the idea that one should vote on the basis of the candidate’s age or skin-colour; Winston Churchill was presiding over the Normandy Landings when he was only a year or two younger than McCain is today, and was several years older when he became prime minister for the second time, while the social changes that have made it possible for the US presidency to be within reach of a black candidate have occurred, and will continue to occur, regardless of who wins. The fact that Obama supposedly is friends with various dangerous radicals is a big red herring; most of us probably have been, one way or another. But it is no more a red herring than the big Sarah Palin bogey; Palin was brought in by McCain to mobilise the Republican base; she will not determine US policy. McCain might die in office and leave the inexperienced and very right-wing Palin as acting president. But probably not. Finally, I have faith that US capitalism will rejuvenate itself, regardless of who is managing the economy.

So for me, it boils down to a choice between the man who will capture the world’s hearts and the man who will fight the world’s enemies. While there are strong arguments to be made for each, I would always support the candidate who, when the chips were down, defended a small nation against a brutal aggressor, against the candidate who has supported an aggressor against a fragile small nation.

Others may draw the line in a different place.

Monday, 3 November 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Kurds, Macedonia, Middle East, Russia, Serbia, Turkey

4 Comments

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