As I am a foreigner, there’s a natural limit to what I can say about any US presidential elections. This is true for billions of other people in the world. But we feel we can at least ask a question or two about the nominees. We do so because we have a stake in what happens, who gets elected and what he or she does in office.
We who have our noses pressed to the glass of American politics often wonder how much Americans realise that whoever becomes president, we billions will be also affected, for good or ill. We may not be able to vote, but we care about whom Americans choose to become the next Emperor of the West because we have a stake in the outcome; the decision matters to us, all of us, in so many big and little ways.
Let’s glance at some of these ways, starting with the worst but then mounting the steps, as it were. If you’re currently in Afghanistan, travelling at speed in a pick-up truck with your lightly-disguised tribal leader, it’s only too possible that what happens to you and your fellow passengers in the next few minutes depends on a man sitting in a dimly-lit bunker in Nevada, his fingers on a joystick, watching you negotiate the bends in the half-made road. As it straightens out, and becomes level, a finger moves. The vaporisation, when it occurs, will take out the truck, all the passengers ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ and you, even as you look up briefly at the darkening sky and see nothing.
Thus the reach of American power, for now. It won’t be by the US President’s direct orders that this particular action takes place, of course, but there’s a war on; in a sense, there always will be from now on. The only empire left standing is now locked into its global momentum, and the president with it, committed to that fifty-year-old promise that no-one in my generation can hear without a shiver,”that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That promise has not always turned out well.
There are a lot of ends and means here. If you’re lucky enough to have a government in your country, you’ll be aware that even that entity cannot always protect you from being seized in the street and spirited away, God knows where, or from having your emails and mobile phone calls monitored without your knowledge, by agents of the American imperium. All in the cause of freedom, of course, but who watches the guardians? But it’s what an empire does, so live with it.
Sometimes, by contrast, the empire fails to stir itself. Remember how the laissez-faire overselling of junk mortgages in the US led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the onset of the banking crisis and the wintry recession that affected all of us all over the world. American leadership got us out of some of that, to be sure, but that domino-effect should not have happened, at the proper controls been in place. At least it woke up America to the fact that it cannot take its dominance, its usual way of doing things, for granted.
So there are things we can concede. It’s a necessarily mixed judgement that reflects a fascinating dichotomy in the American soul, between the determined realpolitik that makes sure that the next president of the World Bank is a US citizen, for example, to the generosity of its contribution ‘over here’ in 1941 – 1945; between that and its isolationism and small-town parochialism; the tension between its pietism and its rip-roaring ‘adult materials’ industry; its information riches over against credulity; its unmatched achievements in innovation versus its chuckle-headed conservatism. Which is the real America? Who will speak for it?
America the Beautiful
These things are difficult to weigh in the balance, it is true, and there is good and bad in every country. But all in all the American empire still represents a heap of good that we can value; still retains some measure of our respect and gratitude, through a saving attachment to the concept of the shining “City upon a hill... the eyes of all people are upon us”, enshrined in its foundation myth. Long may it continue to do so.
Now there is to be an election. The Democrat nominee in all but name seems scarred by the burden of having spent four valuable years trying to persuade Americans that sociopolitical concepts that we Europeans think of as unexceptional givens are not thereby covert attempts to smuggle socialism into the USA. But Mr Obama has a powerful set of skills, a large war-chest and an impressive ability to be patient and will probably survive the tournament well. My questions here are about the Republicans’ nominee.
“Working hard for America’s future”
About Governor Romney, I ask: how does a man with such casual country-club disdain get the support he has attracted up till now? How does a man so apparently lacking in steadfast convictions get support from 47% of national registered voters (Gallup, 11 – 15 April; 45% for Obama)? How does a candidate make so many gaffes and still stay standing? Why does a man who introduced an admired health plan into one state promise, in effect, to make it less likely that other states do the same? Why is a candidate so clearly secure in the nomination so mistrusted by core constituencies such as women, conservatives and the ‘highly religious’? Where is the enthusiasm for him? Is he the right person for the job? What is his world view? Who is Mitt Romney?
I suppose the answer lies partly in the Governor’s campaign website, so I open it. Pausing briefly at the section on health care, merely to murmur polite incredulity, I turn to the section on national defence. It has a kind of app attached to it in the form of a white paper entitled An American Century – a strategy to secure America’s enduring interests and ideals. I read it, puzzled.
This surprising document is so determined to extol America in the world that it is ready to use irrelevant facts (eg on naval shipbuilding since World War 2, numbers of fighter aircraft etc) and illogicalities (leadership always means taking the top chair) to attempt to support its arguments and appeal to common sense that it winds up doing neither. Despite its concerns about cyberwarfare, and its exasperated tone it is a faintly old-fashioned manifesto.
You did what, Mr President?
It also includes an attack on President Obama for supposedly misrepresenting America abroad:
“Among the “sins” for which he has repented in our collective name are American arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions, for acting unilaterally, for acting without regard for others; for treating other countries as mere proxies, for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, for committing torture, for fueling anti-Islamic sentiments, for dragging our feet in combating global warming, and for selectively promoting democracy. The sum total of President Obama’s rhetorical efforts has been a form of unilateral disarmament in the diplomatic and moral sphere. A President
who is so troubled by America’s past cannot lead us into the future.” An American Century, p10
Goodness, what a charge sheet. I have two or three immediate reactions to it. First, it appears to be saying that none of President Obama’s assertions as listed is true. We foreigners would beg to differ, not least when we read on the following page that “We have never sought to impose ourselves on others, to seek colonies, or to engage in conquest.” p11 I can’t think of a polite way of indicating that there is evidence to the contrary. Can’t the governor see that we are more likely to respect a president who is prepared to be honest in this way than one who is concerned only to whitewash the facts? What kind of policies and strategies are built on realities which are denied in this way?
Second, it’s disturbing that both of the only two mentions of global warming in this 44-page white paper, are no more than parts of quotations drawn from selectively chosen statements made by the current administration. And, silent on environmental concerns, that is all that this document is prepared to say on what is surely the most pressing international problem of all.
After this, it is a relief to see that Mr Romney has some regard for another global problem, saying that “counterterrorism strategy must contain measures to balance the increased capabilities of our analytic technologies against legitimate concerns about the preservation of our constitutional rights.” (p40) Given the paper’s favourable mention of the UK – “Take swift measures to restore and enhance relationships with our most steadfast allies [including] declaring the U.S.-U.K. special relationship to be a foundation for peace and liberty” – can we hope that a Romney administration would take any of our seasoned advice on such matters?
Third, and this brings us back to the presidential person profile, what does the white paper mean by that doleful remark, “A President who is so troubled by America’s past cannot lead us into the future”? Why ever not? Surely it’s a president’s job to find fault with much of the past and fix things so that its lessons are learned and mistakes not repeated? It is precisely the wrong type of passive conservatism that persists in thinking that this kind of awareness is unnecessary.
I foresee two outcomes of the 2012 election, neither of them good. One is that Governor Romney fails to be elected president in November 2012, and the immediate consequence is an internecine conflict in the Republican party, between what I would call the ‘fruits’ – the sleekly wealthy component of the GOP ever keen to portray themselves as wealth-providers – and the ‘nuts’, the heads-must-roll neocons, the ‘highly religious’, the hard-line social conservatives and the wilder fringes of the Tea Party movement. Such a blood-letting would not be good for the country as a whole, surely.
The other outcome is that Mitt ‘American Century’ Romney wins and becomes president. From that moment, we shall find out, Americans and others alike but a bit late, what sort of leader Mitt Romney thinks he is and whether he is the right person for the job. His administration would, I am sure, think of itself as principled, benign but firm, intent on leading from the front, doing what has to be done, uncompromising and alert. But hospitable, consultative, energetic and alive to events and changes? I only ask.