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Sunday
Nov302008

The grand strategic advantage of Obama's blank slate

As far as grand strategy goes, Barack Obama comes to the presidency totally unburdened by his past, as this is truly his first act in international political theater.

Plus he's unusually credentialed as a presumed agent of future change - his biracial background alone.

In ideological terms, he's a relatively free agent.

That's a huge plus in his asset column as he follows the highly ideological Bush-Cheney administration because he encounters a world of labeled players, most of whom are eager to come in from whatever "cold" standing vis-a-vis the United States that their current designation implies.

That doesn't mean these regimes necessarily seek our affinity but merely the cessation of our efforts to isolate them from globalization's networks.

As America suffers its own inevitable bout of ideological bankruptcy right now, thanks to the subprime crisis, Obama is relatively free to reshape a host of America's bilateral and multilateral ties around the world, where he's likely to find 50 percent taken off the top of most foreign leaders' past price for cooperation with Washington.

Whatever names we called other regimes in the past, they're calling us plenty now, too.

But such dynamics naturally abate during this political interregnum, so the longer the Obama administration goes without preemptively categorizing other regimes - as in, this "league" or that "axis," the more likely these governments are to submit for his consideration what could be a mutually acceptable new - or renewed - line of dialogue.

Since this "Nixon" has no past, Obama is free to visit whatever "China" beckons, so long as the payoffs are reasonably apparent.

And where he may not immediately tread, his hard-line presumptive secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, could fill in.

If he's as smart as he seems, President-elect Obama won't be attaching any doctrine to his name in the near term.

The Bush Doctrine, with its twin foci of a "war on terror" and democracy promotion, did such a thorough job of discrediting itself through the administration's shabby postwar efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan that no successor is immediately required to clear the global palate.

It's better to let any Obama doctrine emerge slowly, through action, than announce it up front. Herein lies the great opportunity of Obama's administration: Between those two distant shoulders of globalization's bell curve (baseline security structure and top-line political form), there is actually found a huge swath of ideological territory worth staking out - the rise of an unprecedented global middle class.

America's middle class ideology emerged following our Civil War, when our high-trust East rapidly integrated our low-trust - as in, "wild" - West and birthed the self-empowered and self-reliant political mindset that animates "hardworking" Americans to this day.

A similar economic cohort emerges today, but on a global scale in emerging and frontier economies. The question is, Who will capture the ideological flag of this global middle class?

History says you either rule from the right (fascism), the left (communism), or the middle (some form of political pluralism).

Barack Obama will spend most of his first term unwinding the twin legacies of Bush-Cheney: the two wars and the financial overhang.

On the side, but somewhat in conjunction with that, he will seek to renegotiate America's relationship with the world-a global community that has bought into our baseline economic model but still has a long way to go on recognizable democracy.

President-elect Obama seems naturally attuned to America's middle-class needs and ambitions.

If he can display a similar awareness and deft handling with regard to globalization's emerging middle class and its clear "dignity" agenda, then America might once again aspire to become the leader of not just the "free world" but the "freeing-up world" as well.

And wouldn't it be nice to see America once again focusing on the economic justice side of history's ledger and not merely that of political order?

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