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Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama, published August 1996
(Click for Amazon book review)
BOOK REVIEW by OnTheIssues.org:
This is the book to read if you want to understand Obama's personal background and how it forms his character. It was written while he was still only an obscure State Senator -- written in his spare time, without a ghost writer, while struggling to make ends meet on a state senator's salary. Therefore it is an honest portrait, made before Obama even intended to run for US Senate, much less for President.
Here I'll discuss one aspect of Obama's background, which is his internationalism. I'm writing this shortly after Obama returned from his "campaign trip" abroad, which included fact-finding in Iraq and drawing a crowd of 200,000 fans in Germany. While the mainstream press was overwhelmingly enamored with Obama on that trip, it has become clear upon Obama's return that the voting public has not responded nearly as positively. Obama's popularity abroad relates to Obama's international upbringing, as outlined in this book.
Obama spent several years of his childhood living abroad -- four years in Indonesia. In addition, he maintains contact with his paternal family in Kenya (where, during his 2007 visit, he also was greeted as a hero). And his birthplace and home of his grandparents and half-sister is Hawaii, argualy the most international of the fifty states.
The question for the presidential race is this: Does Obama's personal experience living abroad count as foreign policy expertise? I would say Yes; but the voting public has declared No. In other words, McCain's argument that Obama has no foreign policy expertise has prevailed.
I would say Yes, because I personally have a similar experience as Obama, and I consider that a valid basis for claiming foreign policy expertise. I've resided in Denmark, Hong Kong, and Israel, for 6 to 12 months each; I've traveled to more than 40 countries and spent a total of about 4 or 5 years abroad; I've been in relationships with women living in Pakistan, Denmark, and Hong Kong. I do consider that I have substantial foreign policy expertise, entirely on the basis of that personal experience.
To illustrate why that qualifies me as a foreign policy expert, I'll relate my experience in a class on foreign policy at the Master's degree level at Harvard University in the early 1990s. I attended an introductory class on foreign policy with the intent of concentrating in that field. But I found that my fellow students had relatively little knowledge of world politics -- despite that most had just graduated from foreign policy undergraduate institutions. For example, we discussed Japan's relations with its neighbors, and my fellow students suggested that Japan should be be creating a trading bloc (like ASEAN or NAFTA) with China, Korea, and Russia, its nearest neighbors. It was obvious to me that Japan could never do such a thing, because the Koreans await an apology for WWII enslavement; the Chinese await reparations for the "Rape of Nanjing"; and the Russians await resolution of the disputed Kuril Islands. I knew those things first-hand from Japanese co-workers in Hong Kong, who were reluctant to visit those areas with me. My classmates knew little about those sort of "facts on the ground," and I ended up switching my field of concentration to the more experience-oriented "International Development".
Obama is an internationalist. That means, not only does he believe in globalization as an economic and military policy, but he is accustomed to presenting himself abroad as an American -- which most Americans are not. America is an isolated country -- unless we go out of our way to travel abroad and experience it intimately, we don't participate in the rest of the world. The consequence of that isolation is that we don't deeply understand foreigners' points of view. Internationalist Americans DO understand foreigners -- and foreigners are well-aware of distinguishing internationalist Americans from our more isolated brethren. Obama's massive crowd of supporters in Germany was an acknowledgement from the Germans that they recognize Obama as an internationalist. The press' enthrallment with Obama on his foreign trip was because the press saw that other foreigners recognized that too, and assumed it would translate to popularity at home.
But most Americans are not internationalists. The press got it wrong because they only reported on what foreigners felt -- while foreigners don't vote in the US presidential election. Obama thought he would be seen on this trip as Presidential -- but in fact his popularity abroad was seen as just another way in which Obama differs from most Americans, because most Americans are not internationalist. Hence Obama's trip abroad was seen as elitist by most American voters -- not as evidence of foreign policy expertise, even though it WAS seen that way abroad.
I consider myself an internationalist too. But I acknowledge that I'm in a small minority among my countrymen. My internationalist background certainly colors all of my politics -- for example, I said, "Oh, look," upon watching the debates for the French presidency, "Sarkozy descends from Hungarian nobility," an obvious fact to anyone who has traveled to Hungary and has learned their nomenclature system -- "and therefore as an internationalist he's sincere in his positive view toward reaching out to America." But usually I shut up about the origins of my political philosophy, because I don't want to be seen as elitist.
How does all that affect the presidential election? Well, Obama better shut up about his internationalism too, or he'll alienate most Americans by seeming elitist. And, although any internationalist would certainly grant Obama the lead over McCain in relevant foreign policy expertise, the American voting public will not. Therefore Obama needs to pick a Vice President who has more conventional foreign policy expertise, to counter McCain's attacks on this front.
Just my prediction --
-- Jesse Gordon, jesse@OnTheIssues.org, Aug. 2008
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