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Quran-Burning and Republican Electoral Strategy: A Postscript from Australia

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What follows -- adapted from the conclusion of a longer article,"Waiting for the Preacher: Obama's America in World Religious Context" -- was a part of my attempt this past week to contextualize the past American month for an Australian audience:

How on Earth, my new Australian friends have been asking me, can so large a fraction of the American public believe that its President is an illegal Muslim immigrant actively collaborating with Islamic terrorism? Australians tend to ask the question, and it has come several times now, with a smile and a shake of the head. Well, yes, America is a wild and crazy country, no denying that. But let me suggest, if I may, that this particular piece of craziness is not a wildflower in the meadow of American craziness but a genetically engineered plant, in both senses of the word plant -- a plant designed for a specific function.

To begin with just a bit of recent history, Republican strategists and their allies in the media initially sought during the 2008 Presidential campaign to present Democratic candidate Barack Obama as an angry black racist, patently playing to the still-strong elements of race hatred in the Republican Party's southern base. That effort failed after Obama gave what many regard as an historic speech. A fallback strategy, aimed at giving race hatred, increasingly a sin that dares not speak its name, a new hook to hang on, mobilized anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment by planting and cultivating the bogus charge that the Democratic candidate was an illegal Muslim immigrant. The Obama campaign buried this charge, rather than dignifying it with a response, by effectively celebrating Michelle Robinson Obama's picture-perfect black American family rather than the candidate's own during the Democratic nominating convention.

I pause to point out that if Republicans, then or now, actually believed this charge, they would long since have sought to impeach Obama. For that matter, Democrats would have sought to impeach him. That no such attempt has been made or will ever be made ought to tell you that Republican strategists don't believe their own charge for a minute, and yet Republican office-holders from the top down have meticulously abstained from repudiating it. It may look to you like an urban myth. It may look that way to some Americans, as well. It is, in fact, a classic electoral dirty trick.

This summer, thanks to the severe recession that continues in the United States, Republican gains in the mid-term election have seemed certain, yet the possibility of further financial reform still looms, and the George W. Bush Administration's tax cuts for the wealthy seem in particular danger. Only major Republican gains can preserve these highest-priority Republican agenda items. What might turn a solid gain into a game-changing Democratic rout?

The electoral tactic the Republicans seem to have chosen, one familiar from many previous Republican campaigns, has been the elevation of a divisive social issue into a brief national obsession well-calculated to distract the general electorate at the crucial moment from an unpalatable Republican economic agenda. Over the past weeks, with noteworthy abruptness, the existing canard that Obama is an illegal Muslim immigrant has been intensified by its linkage to a previously praised (on FOX News as well as in the mainstream media) Lower Manhattan Islamic center, a kind of Islamic YMCA. The calculated demonization of this project, which is to include a multi-faith prayer space, as a "Ground Zero Mosque" began with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. It continued through an abrupt about-face on Murdoch's FOX News channel. Transparently, the intent has been to provoke Obama into defending the center in the name of American freedom of religion, thus lending credibility to the politically targeted charge that he is collaborating with Islamic terrorists against his own country.

The strategy has worked -- but perhaps all too well. It has taken on a life of its own and triggered an embarrassing wave of general anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States, stretching noticeably beyond anything felt immediately after the bombings themselves. Among the uglier manifestations: a stabbing, an arson attempt, vandalizations, etc. This sort of thing exceeds anything that could plausibly pay a dividend to Republicans in November. But to stop it, they -- and most especially former President George W. Bush, whose silence has become increasingly audible -- would have had to do what they have been trying to provoke Obama into doing: they would have had to stand up for American Muslims. That would be good for the country, of course, both at home and abroad, and good for the world, emphatically including Australia. However, it would go exactly counter to the Republican electoral strategy. And in case you haven't noticed, nothing of the sort has happened. Indeed, the latest baroque wrinkle has been one perennial Republican hopeful's "discovery" that Obama is comprehensible only in terms of Kenyan postcolonial radicalism. (Tell me another one just like the other one....)

In any case, the terminal spinout of the strategy may have come when a Florida pastor announced a public burning of the Quran on September 11. This Quran-burning abomination became a major international scandal, so undermining American security and military strategy in Afghanistan that Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces there, denounced it and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates phoned the pastor personally to persuade him to call it off.

The pastor finally did call it off, but the damage had been done. In the pursuit of domestic electoral advantage, the right wing had lent substantial new credibility to the claim that the United States was at war with Islam, undermined the U.S. effort to stabilize Afghanistan, and strengthened the opposition facing the fragile U.S.-backed government in Iraq. President Obama had failed to rise to the occasion with a speech remotely comparable to his 2008 speech on race relations. His modest remarks on the anniversary of September 11 were appropriate but, in context, seemed almost literally the least he could do. Most regrettably, perhaps, the visionary plans he had announced so boldly late in 2007 to lay to rest the damaging belief that the United States was at war with Islam now seemed lost forever. And that loss matters to Australia scarcely less than it does to America.

After the 2001 attacks, then-President George W. Bush had declared quite plainly that the United States was not at war with Islam. However, his language thereafter, especially "Global War on Terror," when clearly only Muslim-sponsored terrorism was in view, had an alienating and offensively incriminating effect on Muslims around the world. After the unwarranted U.S. invasion of Iraq, the notion took hold quite powerfully and widely that the United States was indeed at war with Islam. Approaching the 2008 election, then-Senator Barack Obama's descent from a Kenyan father of ostensibly Muslim culture and his boyhood in Indonesia with his mother and an Indonesian Muslim stepfather seemed, a priori, unique assets for a historic new departure.

Some of you may have dipped into Obama's The Audacity of Hope, in which so much is said of Indonesia. Imagine the potential benefits for Australia of a significant rapprochement between the United States, the most powerful country in the West, and Indonesia, the largest country in the Muslim world, a functioning democracy, and your largest near neighbor. Sadly, Obama's opponents have turned his potential diplomatic assets into electoral liabilities and, in the current electoral campaign, have shown themselves willing to undermine their country's foreign policy and even our armed forces' battlefield security for short-term political gain.

And it may yet be, when all the dust has settled, that they will not have procured even that. The ugly picture of the United States that Americans have been gazing at over the past two weeks or so has had a Republican more than a Democratic frame. American voters, come November, may recoil from it more than the punditry is currently prepared to believe. We'll find out soon enough, and with the election behind us, the "Ground Zero Mosque" circus will quietly leave media town. The center will be built, but Rupert Murdoch will no longer find it worth demonizing. What will matter for a longer time, alas, will be the unseen collateral damage to a deeply needed detente in the war that never was.