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Obama and Anti-Americanism

The muted response to the recent shoe-throwing incident in Baghdad could mean that there is a popular consensus that size 10 fits President Bush. If the Left had a tough time keeping a straight face while condemning the Iraqi journalist who hurled the footwear, the Right wing, which appears to have already moved out of the Bush shadow, was content to dismiss the incident as an unnecessary insult.

But there may be more to this equanimity in the face of the insult to the commander-in-chief -- a corresponding expectation that the global popularity of President-elect Barack Obama will somehow refurbish the image of America abroad. In fact, there are many American voters who overcame their resistance to Obama in the later stages of the campaign because of the goodwill his candidacy had generated even in the traditionally anti-American corners of the world. No doubt, the ferocity of anti-Americanism around the world provoked by the Bush administration weighed on them.

The president-elect himself seems hopeful of softening the flames of hatred through his policies and persona. He recently said his administration would "reboot America's image" around the world, particularly in the Muslim world. He promised to develop relationships of "mutual respect and partnership in countries and with peoples of goodwill." He is also hoping that taking the oath of office under his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, will have a salubrious impact on the Islamic world's perception of America.

But these may be easier said than done because Obama might symbolize one thing to America and another to the world. For the former, Obama represents a catharsis from eight years of national trauma beginning with the Florida recount and spanning through 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the economic collapse, extreme partisanship, deepened social and class divisions, and, most of all, the pervasive negativity with which Americans dealt with themselves and others.

But Obama represents more than just an alternative to Bush. He has become a symbol and a barometer of the evolution of the American Idea. His election was a positive affirmation, not just of the candidate Obama, but the magnificent other of America.

On the contrary, there are no such compelling reasons for the pervasive popularity of Obama among people abroad. Some of his popularity, particularly in the Islamic countries, could be attributed to the mistaken notion that he's a Muslim. "Fame," after all, "is the sum total of all misunderstandings that surround a name."

But what fully accounts for the unprecedented support that caused people in Gaza and the West Bank to not only make contributions to the Obama campaign but also to take to the streets to celebrate his victory? (With the firm assurance that it cannot be held accountable for every contribution made, the Obama campaign should release the list of non-American contributors, if only to understand the nature and extent of its candidate's popularity.)

Or why 250,000 Berliners came out to listen to him, when even that many Chicagoans didn't turn up for the election night celebration -- unless, of course, Berliners were mostly mobilized by the German left parties in conjunction with the Obama campaign. How does one explain that, going by social networking websites, Obama is the most popular American in places such as Japan, South Korea, China and Indonesia, that too, among a demographic that doesn't care for Americans at all?

Without taking anything away from his charismatic appeal, not to mention his policy proposals, could Obama's popularity outside of sub-Saharan Africa be considered an expression of anti-Americanism?

That is a distinct possibility considering that a black candidate does not have any special appeal in these countries, which harbor neither historical guilt associated with slavery nor have a sizable black minority in their midst to experience racial sensitivity or romanticism that could provoke special affection. In other words, in most of these hierarchical and stratified societies, there are cultural biases against blacks that have not been sanitized or diluted by social interaction or political correctness.

In that context, even at the risk of overstating the racial connotations, it can be assumed that some would view Obama's victory as a comeuppance to the American sense of superiority and power. To those in the Islamic world who regard the conflict between their countries and the West in civilazational terms, with American power representing an implicit military, technological and cultural superiority, Obama could be seen as a leveler at least in the psychological context of the conflict. In other words, his elevation to the Oval Office could be seen as representing the dilution and weakening of American influence.

Considering that a good deal of Obama's foreign and military policies will be directed toward bigoted, parochial and nihilistic nonstate actors, not to mention regimes that have messianic pretentions, perceptions will have a considerable bearing on their responses. His promised conciliatory approach could be misunderstood, particularly by subnational forces that lack the institutional apparatus to gauge the power behind the approach. The inevitable discrepancy between perception and reality, between Obama and America, could result in unanticipated ramifications.

The first foreign policy goal for the new president, therefore, should be to blur the perceived distinction between Obama and America. He can manage traditional anti-Americanism with wise policies. It is the nature of his popularity that may be more difficult to deal with.

Sunil Adam is the editor of "The Indian American," a general-interest magazine published from New York. He can be reached at sunil@theindianamerican.com