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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Obama's Effect on America's World Image

Here is a great reader comment over at Andrew Sullivan's blog that sums up what I've been saying for weeks. People too readily poo-poo the idea that Obama would repair America's image in the world simply by being elected. Fortunately for us, soft power can be really simple:

My wife and I are serving overseas in Yemen and I wanted to share a quick anecdote with you about Obama-buzz here in Sanaa. While getting my haircut several weeks ago, I was surprised when my barber Mohammed drifted from his usual aspersions about George Bush to suddenly inquire about Barack Obama. My Arabic is fairly limited, so it took me some time to understand that Mohammed and the other Yemeni patrons had seen Obama during an appearance with Oprah on Al-Jazeera. All of them agreed that of the people seeking to become President, Obama offered the only redemptive option for America.

After my haircut was nearing an end - a nearly 60 minute process - Mohammed said that "if a black man can become President, then maybe the story of America isn't a lie after all."

A few weeks later I was surprised at the end of a meeting with Yemeni government officials, when my hosts broke out into spontaneous praise for Obama and simultaneous incredulity that a man of color could win the American presidency. These two stories are just blips on the Yemeni consciousness, but it's worth noting that the advent of satellite television enables even the poorest families in the Middle East's poorest country to follow the US election. Those two stories stand out as the most dramatic to me, but they're not the only ones. Obama's mere candidacy has restored a fraction of the prestige and credibility we've lost - at least in Sanaa.