Charismatic and eloquent US presidential candidate Barack Obama has attracted a huge public following among Americans disillusioned with the war in Iraq and the subprime mortgage crisis. However, foreign policy may prove to be his undoing, as Joseph Poprzeczny, who recently returned from the US, reports.
Over 35 million American voters backed either Chicago-based Senator Barack Obama or New York-based Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party’s drawn-out Primaries to choose the party’s candidate for the November US presidential election.
Both left-of-centre candidates were strongly supported by their politically active spouses – Michelle Obama and ex-President Bill Clinton respectively. All are lawyers – the Obamas from Harvard’s law school, the Clintons from Yale’s; so these privileged couples hail from America’s two premier north-eastern and largely left-liberal institutions.
Although Barack Obama gained the required number of delegates for endorsement, Hillary Clinton was ahead in the popular vote.
Clinton therefore resembles former Vice-President Al Gore, who led in the popular vote at the November 2000 election against Republican George W. Bush, but failed to corral the necessary electoral college delegates.
According to one media report: “About 18 million supporters voted for Senator Clinton and many feel aggrieved that a woman’s first chance to become president of the US has been snuffed out for now – some angry enough to suggest they will register a protest vote and back Republican presumptive nominee [Senator] John McCain.”
However, if the enthusiasm that gave Obama the right to take the Democrats into November’s clash with McCain is sustained, his path to the White House seems assured.
The Republicans by contrast are demoralised, disunited and no longer outward-looking. McCain, although conveying patriotism and level-headedness, is uninspiring and hasn’t rallied the backing of those who swept Ronald Reagan and the Bushes to victory.
Whatever one says of Obama, it cannot be denied that he’s surrounded himself with a skilful team of media and other advisers who have consistently outmanoeuvred the Clintons, despite Obama’s failure to gain more popular votes.
That team easily outperformed the Clintons in fundraising ($265 million to $215 million), and so outspent her. It devised tactics to inspire blacks, the young, and America’s sizeable segment of ageing left-of-centre voters who hail from the 1960s generation. These voting blocs now form the bedrock of Obama’s White House drive.
Clinton found herself being left with rural and working-class supporters, and ageing women.
Obama’s team also kept media attention well away from several potentially debilitating issues that Clinton was either unable or unwilling to highlight.
These included Obama’s 23-year association with the rabid Chicago preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who delivers racially charged sermons. Wright officiated at the Obamas’ wedding and baptised their children.
By late May, Obama’s advisers prevailed and convinced him to publicly disassociate himself from his long-time pastor, something Wright claimed was done purely for political effect.
Earlier, Michelle Obama claimed that “for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback”. This understandably sparked widespread Republican criticism, since she was claiming that for all her privileged career she hadn’t been proud to be American.
In came Obama’s spin-doctors. They issued a counter-claim saying “anyone who heard her remarks… would understand that she was commenting on our politics”, despite her having specifically referred to her “country”, not its politics.
Clinton picked up on neither potentially damaging incident.
The same advisers also coined Obama’s much-hailed campaign slogan, “Change we can believe in”, which commentators saw as superior to Clinton’s constantly changing ones, from “Let the conversation begin” to “Big challenges, real solutions” to “Working for change, working for you”.
McCain paid Obama’s campaign the ultimate compliment by adopting a very similar slogan – “A leader we can believe in”.
However, what does Obama precisely stand for?
I was in the United States throughout May and watched all evening television news (sometimes from 7pm until well after midnight), including the long C-SPAN cable TV programs that offered saturation coverage of the primaries. Yet, after nearly 30 evenings, I cannot honestly say I know what Obamaism means.
There’s a lot of huffing-and-puffing about change, a bright future for America, all peppered with doses of anti-Bush commentary. But after that one is still at a loss.
Obama certainly presents well, leading one to suspect he’s probably modelled himself on his long-time mentor, Jeremiah Wright, minus the obvious politically suicidal remarks.
Apart from a commitment to unconditional talks with Iran and its belligerent Palestinian and Shi’ite Lebanese allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, and his promise of a swift withdrawal from Iraq, Obama has not elucidated what he means by “change we can believe in”.
Hopefully, the months leading up to the November election will see closer scrutiny of Obama’s proposed Middle Eastern agenda of cut-and-run and negotiation.
Obama has stressed to Democrat voters that Iran is not a threat to world peace. But his benign view of Shi’ite mullah-controlled Tehran isn’t shared by Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf Emirates, Saudi Arabia and even by many in Iraq – all of them, to varying degrees, American allies.
If a future Obama administration abandons President Bush’s containment strategy towards Iran, it is virtually guaranteed that the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, at least, will promptly make their own accommodation with Teheran.
What follows thereafter is anyone’s guess.
The impact of such an American pull-back would undoubtedly have dramatic effects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, none of these likely outcomes has ever been alluded to, let alone highlighted, by the American media.
The one exception is Iranian-born author and Middle Eastern columnist, Amir Taheri who has warned that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already devised a strategy of which the short-sighted Obama is either unaware of or too naïve to understand (“Iran’s winning Latin power play”, New York Post, May 1, 2008).
Dubbed “the counter lasso”, it sees Iran aligning itself with anti-American regimes across South and Central American so as to slowly squeeze Washington into defending the Western Hemisphere from Florida and Texas.
Ahmadinejad contends that President Bush and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, have set about attempting to “lasso” Iran and bind it foot and mouth by blocking Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons; by promoting economic sanctions against Teheran with United Nations backing; and by maintaining land-based and naval forces in the Persian Gulf and Iraq.
The best way of countering the American “lasso”, he clams, is to swing a “counter lasso” via Central and South America.
Taheri puts it thus: “Ahmadinejad’s analysis is simple: America is trying to throw a lasso around Iran with the help of allies in surrounding regions. So Iran should throw a counter lasso, via an alliance in the United States’ South American backyard.”
According to Taheri, Iran’s “counter lasso” strategy is four-pronged:
“Energy: Iran’s aim is to replace as many US companies as possible in the Latin American oil and gas industry. A joint Irano-Venezuelan consortium hopes to dominate the natural-gas sector in Bolivia while launching new exploration schemes for oil and gas in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru.
“Arms: No Latin country has a credible weapons industry; Iran hopes to fill the gap. It has sold $4.5 billion worth of armaments to Venezuela and is training hundreds of Venezuelan military personnel.
“Security: Iranian and Venezuelan security services have set up a coordination committee and developed a system of exchanging information. Nicaragua is expected to join soon, as are Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador.
“Media: The first media step has come in a $1 billion Iranian investment in developing a Spanish-language TV network to compete with the major US satellite channels.”
Taheri says that America’s 19th-century Monroe Doctrine, “designed to deny European powers a dominant role in the Americas, apparently doesn’t apply to Iran – which is determined to carve its own Latin American zone of influence”.
He adds: “Ahmadinejad likes to tell his Latin American hosts: ‘The Americans are going, the Iranians are coming’.”
Ahmadinejad was consequently among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Fernando Lugo – the Paraguayan Catholic ex-priest who recently won his country’s presidency.
It was then that he added he hoped Lugo would become another link in the “the counter lasso” – the chain of anti-US regimes the Iranian president is supporting with the help of his “brother”, Venezuelan President Chávez.
Since the late 1980s, according to Taheri, “the Iranian-run Hezbollah, a global movement of Khomeinist militants, has built a base in Paraguay by recruiting in the Shiite community, about 15 percent of the population”.
“That base played a key role in ensuring Lugo’s victory, especially via a big fund-raising campaign backed by Iran and Venezuela.
“Cuba was the first Latin regime to forge an informal alliance with Iran. In the last 18-years, Iran has injected billions into Cuba’s ailing economy, partly by providing free crude oil.
“But only in the late ’90s did Tehran find a true Latin ally in [Hugo] Chávez – who has visited the Islamic Republic six times, setting a record for any foreign leader. He’s helped Iran create a radical axis in OPEC, with Libya and Algeria as occasional allies….
“In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas have regained power under President Daniel Ortega – who highlighted his alliance with Ahmadinejad by making Iran the first non-Latin country he visited after taking office.
“Lugo’s win in Paraguay completes the leftist takeover in the region. South of Mexico, the only puzzle piece still tilting rightward [towards Washington] is Colombia under President Alvaro Uribe.”
With such a string of political successes so far, it’s difficult to see why Ahmadinejad would want to concede anything to a naïve President Obama.