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Alan Fein

Alan Fein

Posted: September 15, 2008 07:00 PM

A Celebrity for the Right Reason


For nearly two weeks, all we talked about was lipstick. Now, finally, we are talking about the Republican stewardship over the economy. It's easy to forget that in just a few days, Barack Obama and John McCain will debate foreign policy. In that light, it's time to remember something we witnessed just a couple of months ago; something that speaks volumes on the candidates' respective perceptions of the world as well as the world's perception of America; something that seems tucked further in the past than it should: Barack Obama's trip around the world.

If you try just a little, you will conjure up powerful images. Barack Obama in a gym in Kuwait shooting baskets, and then embraced by troops who could barely contain themselves, thrilled to see him. Barack Obama in our embassy in Baghdad, surrounded by American personnel who could barely contain themselves, obviously thrilled to see him. Barack Obama greeted warmly and with respect in Israel. Jordan's king, thrilled to see him, driving him to the airport in his car. The pro-American head of the French government, arm around him, thrilled to see him, effusive in his praise. Two hundred thousand Germans, flooding a public square and the blocks and streets surrounding him, thrilled to see him.

Why do these images seem so distant? How in the world are these images a bad thing? Of course, they aren't. But in the days that followed this astounding trip, the same guys who brought you the Swift Boat attack brought us the Celebrity attack. Barack Obama was an empty suit, they told us, deserving of celebrity in the same way Britney Spears is. In doing so, they attacked Barack Obama's strength. They tried -- quite successfully so far -- to stop us from beginning to appreciate what the world would be like if the world respected and admired an American president once again.

As we get closer to our foreign policy debate, Democrats should grab the mantle of these powerful images. How did they become a negative? Why, we should ask, was Barack Obama greeted as a celebrity? If he's just an empty suit celebrity, unfit to be commander-in-chief, why are our troops thrilled to see him? Perhaps it's because they respect him, and because they've been overstretched and disrespected by this president. If he's lacking a clear world view -- he clearly isn't -- why are our State Department employees thrilled to see him? Perhaps it is because they've been dissed and outflanked by Cheney and his neocons.

And why are hundreds of thousands of Europeans thrilled to see him? The world is not thrilled to see Barack Obama because he is a celebrity. The world is thrilled to see him because he is not George W. Bush. Because -- and I mean this -- most of the world either loves America or wants to love America. Millions still dream of coming here. Most of us are greeted warmly in most places around the world. Indeed, it is easy to remember millions of people coming out on foreign soil to passionately greet an American president, a Kennedy, a Carter, a Reagan, a Clinton. This used to be the norm. Yet George W. Bush hasn't been able to show his face most anywhere. In early 2007, I remember hearing Barack Obama tell a small group of people in Florida that whoever next took the oath of office would be met by the world's collective sigh of relief - unless, of course, that person took the oath to carry out the same disastrous policies of this president.

What Bush forgot is that the world doesn't like bullies. He forgot what Dwight Eisenhower told us three days before he left office. While President Eisenhower's farewell speech is remembered most vividly for its warnings about the "military-industrial complex", he also warned us against abusing the awesome power of our might. "This world of ours", he warned us, "must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect."

While Eisenhower realized that we had become the preeminent power in the world, and while he realized we still faced a dire threat from the Communist bloc, he knew that the abuse of our power would lead to only fear and enmity. The "proud confederation of mutual trust and respect" he described "must be one of equals." He went on: "The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of disarmament - of the battlefield."

President Bush has certainly eroded "our moral, economic and military strength". Our moral position in the world had been damaged by going to war on false pretenses, and our failure to honor the rules of war and our own constitution. Our economic greatness has been badly weakened by unrestrained greed. And our military power has been so stretched that when we threaten people to follow them to the gates of hell, and proclaim that "we are all Georgians", it looks like we're all hat and no cattle.

But worst of all, by failing to live up to Eisenhower's admonition to be "confident but humble with power", by making every other nation of the world feel nothing like "equals" with a voice at the table, we have poured fuel on the fires of hate, and made us less safe. Indeed, once again having a president who is admired and respected around the world would make us safer. Creating a world in which we truly worked together to attack this blight of terrorism at its core would make America safer. We should all feel proud, not embarrassed, and we should feel ultimately safer, to have created a nation in which one of our own is greeted warmly and with anticipation around the world.

Barack Obama is a celebrity because he is not George W. Bush, and offers a return to the legacy of American presidents both respected and admired around the world. He, and those of who support him, should wear that mantle of celebrity quite proudly.