Obama could be bad for Israel

By Daniel Finkelstein, August 21, 2008

I'm tired. It's been seven long, long years and I'm tired. It's so tempting just to lay my head down and rest. Got a pillow, anyone?

It is difficult to understand fully the aims of the 9/11 conspirators, what they were hoping to achieve by blowing up the twin towers. But if one of their objectives was to undermine the unity of the West, then they have succeeded, and succeeded dramatically.

For those of us in Europe determined to argue for solidarity with America and the need for a robust liberal internationalism, it has been a hard, long, rough ride.

And that is why the prospect of Barack Obama is so appealing. Those speeches! The charisma! An African-American President at last! Change! Hope! Audacity! Camelot returns!

For liberal internationalists, there is the dazzling prospect of a popular America. Somebody might write something nice about an American President in The Guardian - how enticing is that? So you see the temptation? Obama is the pillow. I'm off to sleep now.

Except that I can't, we can't. Sleep, I mean.

What makes Obama popular in Europe is what keeps me awake. The idea is that he will wrench American foreign policy from its moorings. Traditional policy instruments will be ditched and traditional allies with it. In the Middle East, in particular, America will be more, ahem, neutral and stop confusing Israel's interests with its own. It is because he holds out this promise, the prospect of making conflict disappear, that the crowds turned up to cheer him in the European capitals.

I am sure that if he did pursue this agenda, it would end in disappointment. He and his supporters would find that neutrality doesn't solve the problems of the Middle East, that Iran can't be made to yield through negotiation alone, and that however much he wooed America's critics, it would never be enough for them.

But at least this disappointment would be disappointment with him. That's a rather seductive thought for those of us who have been arguing America's case these past few years. Unfortunately, there is too much at stake to allow oneself to be seduced. An America that ceased to practise muscular internationalism would be a disaster.

Which leaves only this question - who is Barack Obama? Is he the man so many Europeans hope for and I fear? Or would he, in practice, be a much more traditional president? Sensibly middle of the road, better at communicating his vision than George Bush and a more skilled international diplomatist?

Let me start by dismissing the idea that Obama, because he shares his ethnic group with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, also shares his world view with them. The core of Obama's political identity comes from rejecting the way Jackson and Sharpton do business. I think Obama is probably the last politician in America who would refer to New York as Hymietown, as Jackson once did.

Then there is the broader idea that Obama is, in some sense, not a proper American. From leaked campaign memos, we learned a couple of weeks back that it was an explicit aim of the Hillary Clinton campaign to propagate the idea that Obama is "not at his centre fundamentally American". I think this was a pretty disgraceful accusation, running alongside the internet hoax that Obama is a Muslim.

Not only do I think this was taking the low road, I also think it misses what may be the real danger of Obama - that he is very recognisably an American of a fairly familiar type.

There has been a huge amount of press coverage, naturally and rightly, on the fact that Obama would be the first black president. Equally important to his conduct in office, however, could be this - that he would be the first Democrat from a Northern state to be elected in almost 50 years.

The traditional Democrat explanation for this is a self-aggrandising one. They say it is because the Democrats lost the South by bravely supporting civil rights. Much closer to the truth is that they lost the centre because they became too left-wing. Southern Democrats have won the White House by running from the centre, but the party remains liberal in the North.

If Obama wins, he would be the first Northern liberal to win the Presidency. The question is whether or not he would advance the liberal foreign-policy doctrine. And then there are questions over his appointees. Obama is not a details man, so who will look after the details?

Last week it was revealed that Barack Obama talks on the phone regularly with, of all people, George Clooney. Top of Clooney's agenda - a more neutral policy towards Israel.

With Bill Clinton, I was always confident he wasn't taking that sort of stuff too seriously. With Obama, who knows? Really, who knows?

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

Last updated: 5:55pm, August 21 2008