Except for a few residual Know-Nothings, Americans wouldn't think twice about voting for a Catholic president. In the last election, President Obama abolished the presidential race taboo. And we're likely to have a woman president in the next decade or so. Of course, we haven't elected a Catholic since Kennedy, we might not break the race barrier again for a while, and let's hope our first woman president isn't Mama Grizzly herself.
But just try and imagine a Muslim president. Imagine a U.S. president fasting during Ramadan, turning toward Mecca five times a day for prayer, invoking Allah in the Oval Office. Of course, nearly 20 percent of Americans believe that we already elected a Muslim president -- despite all evidence to the contrary. I'm not sure why this bit of willful ignorance surprises anyone. After all, only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution (which suggests that, in their case, evolution doesn't in fact apply). We are a credulous nation that nevertheless makes fun of the citizens of other countries for their bizarre beliefs, like the divinity of Kim Jong Il or the usefulness of universal health care.
Frankly, I look forward to having a Muslim president. That would truly expand our understanding of what it means to be an American living in a society founded on "Judeo-Christian" values. There are a couple million Muslims in the United States and two Muslims in Congress, Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Andre Corson (D-IN). But judging from the anti-Islamic sentiment that bubbled to the surface during Obama's run for office, and continues today around various controversial buildings and threatened book-burnings, a Muslim president isn't yet on the horizon.
Since we're on the topic of long shots, how about a weak president? Or, to put it more accurately, a president who is courageous enough to appear weak: a president who ends wars as decisively as others have started them.
Obama will give a speech tonight about ending combat operations in Iraq. It won't exactly be a clean break. We're leaving behind 50,000 combat troops that have been rebranded as "advise and assist brigades." These troops, plus another 4,500 Special Ops, can stay until the day before 2012. And while their mission is train Iraqi officers, they will likely engage in combat duties as well. Iraq is, after all, a volatile country, full of guns and anger. On the eve of the U.S. military's departure, the situation in Iraq is so desperate that after a suicide bomber struck an army recruitment center in Baghdad in mid-August, killing over 60 people, the surviving applicants scrambled back in line for the jobs they desperately need.
Still, it's important to acknowledge that the president is honoring his 2007 promise to end the Iraq War, however many asterisks must accompany the fulfillment of that pledge.
Afghanistan is another matter entirely. Obama, even as a presidential candidate, always promised to focus on this war. And now, after committing to a surge of U.S. troops and spending, Afghanistan has become his war. Regardless of his promise to surge and withdraw, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will still likely be fighting in that country when his first term runs out. "Although an anxious Congress may push him to withdraw, the fear of seeming weak on national security will probably pull at least as firmly in the other direction," writes Michael O'Hanlon in the latest Foreign Affairs.
Weak on national security: This is the curse of the Democrats -- even though they have waged wars at least as assiduously as Republicans. Alas, Obama has been weak on national security in the same way that he's been a Muslim: not at all. In fact, as someone who never served in the military, Obama has practiced the art of compensation. He deferred to the generals on Afghanistan, upped the drone attacks in Pakistan, and spread counterinsurgency to other countries, such as Yemen. And now he's stuck with the strong man's dilemma: He can't go forward or backward without generating intense criticism, without being labeled Jimmy Carter 2.0.
In this country, we like our leaders the way we like our whisky and our chins: strong. And by strong, we generally mean martial. Only former military men are permitted to stand up to the Pentagon, like Ike on the military-industrial complex or Colin Powell on quagmires.
And indeed, one of the most effective anti-imperialist voices today comes from a former army officer: Andrew Bacevich. The Boston University professor is not exactly a peacenik. He doesn't rule out military intervention on ethical grounds. He simply maintains, as he does in this Foreign Policy In Focus interview with Andrew Feldman, that although military expansion enhanced U.S. power in the previous eras, "roughly since the 1960s and very much so since 9/11, expansionism has an opposite effect. We're not enhancing our power; we're squandering it. We're not building our prosperity; we're going bankrupt." In his new book, Washington Rules, Bacevich argues that "the United States should employ force only as a last resort and only in self defense."
It's hard to imagine Obama, or any viable presidential candidate, making this argument for the strategic redeployment of the U.S. military (i.e., retreat). Instead, our imperial presidents even inject militarism into diplomacy. We must, therefore, "negotiate from a position of strength" in Afghanistan by shooting first and asking questions later. But what about negotiating from a position of intelligence? In general, we have a president who is not afraid to be smart. But, like his presidential predecessors, he is careful not to be too smart in anti-intellectual America. And thus he falls back on the default position: When in doubt, be strong.
Someday we might have a Muslim president of the United States. In so doing, we would help end the confrontation between Christian and Muslim that has long shaped the identity of "Western civilization." In the meantime, I'm hoping for a president who's not afraid of appearing weak, of ending wars and bringing troops home, of closing bases and cutting back on the Pentagon, of redefining American power. Obama won't be our first Muslim president, but he still has an outside shot at the latter.
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