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Tilting at Windmills

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December 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING TERRORISM....Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, asked about Barack Obama yesterday, said: "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims and I think that experience is a big deal." Mark Kleiman agrees, but James Joyner doesn't:

I disagree strongly with Kerrey and Kleiman about the value of having a president with a Muslim middle name. Indeed, the idea that religious nuts who are willing to murder thousands of Americans would think "Hey, they elected a guy with a Muslim middle name! They must be okay!" is absurd. Hell, they kill plenty of people named Hussein who actually are Muslims; the only thing they hate more than American infidels is Arab apostates.

I think this is badly wrong. And it's badly wrong in an important way. In fact, it gets straight to the heart of perhaps the most serious, most durable misunderstanding held by conservatives about how to fight terrorism.

Kerrey wasn't suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn't. But terrorists can't function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao's sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don't have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It's why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

For today's jihadists, the answer is hard power. There's no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow's jihadists, the answer is soft power. As long as a substantial fraction of the Islamic world supports or tolerates jihadism, we'll never stop the production of new terrorists or seriously reduce their effectiveness. But if that support dries up, we can win. This is where our foreign policy should be focused, and the fact that it hasn't been for the past six years — that, in fact, we've gone backward on this score — is by far the most calamitous aspect of George Bush's disastrous war on terror.

UPDATE: James responds here, and I pretty much agree with him. I don't think the mere fact of having Obama as president would make a huge difference in the fight for Muslim world opinion. Other things are far more important. But it might help.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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Comments

Who really cares is Obama's middle name is muslim and whether that's some type of benefit. I'm voting for someone who I believe will be the best president and that person's name is not Obama. I believe Hilary is the best candidate for a variety of reasons. This middle name stuff is crazy and pointless in my view.

Posted by: Noel on December 17, 2007 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Atrios gets what was really going on.

Posted by: Ty Lookwell on December 17, 2007 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Was Kerrey endorsing Obama? If not, what was the purpose?

Posted by: freelunch on December 17, 2007 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

Kevin, you may have a point. And I bet it will resonate with the American people so much I hope Barack Hussein Obama uses it in his general election commercial: "Vote for Barack Hussein Obama because only a Muslim named Hussein can defeat the terrorists!" *Snicker*

Posted by: Al on December 17, 2007 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, Kevin, what Kerrey was doing was making a backhanded attempt at playing the race card. As a democrat, he couldn't come right and say, "Barack has a funny mulsim-sounding name", so he couches it in a compliment, but getting the point across. And that point is quite clear - vote for Obama, and Islamic jihadists will be wearing your bed clothes.

Posted by: MeLoseBrain? on December 17, 2007 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Freelunch - good question.

1. No, Kerrey just endorsed Hillary Clinton over the weekend.

2. In light of item #1, what do you think Bob was getting at? Atrios has a guess...

Posted by: Robin Ozretich on December 17, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Noel- Kerrey didn't endorse Obama (in fact, he recently endorsed Hillary). Neither he nor Kevin is saying that someone should vote for Obama solely based on this, so just step back a little, eh?

anyway, it's not just the middle name, its his background and, for lack of a better term, "race." You don't have to be locked in to his candidacy to see the symbolic power that would bring to the world stage. Kevin's main point,as i read it is that Bush & many many conservatives completely misunderstand the ways that terrorism maintains and reproduces itself. I am, by the way, supporting Edwards in the caucauses, so i agree that it isn't the end-all be-all of reasons to support a candidate, but i do see how important it is to attend to the "sea" that terrorism and terrorists swim in.

Posted by: urk on December 17, 2007 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Obama knows what he is up against and will deal with it well. Internationally, he and his names would look and sound great as President of the United States. It is a case of him adding something to the Presidency, not the other way around. Pipsqueak Bush makes the US a laughingstock; Barack Obama would give back to the US a deserved admiration.

Posted by: Bob M on December 17, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

sorry i disagree. low spark of religious intolerence. just makin' sure you knOw it
H U S S E I N. NOT THAT THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT, YOU KNOW. SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE .... yadda yadda.

Posted by: mestizo on December 17, 2007 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

But terrorists can't function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population

It is not just 'terrorists' who cannot function without a tolerance from a surrounding population. Imperial militaries must also have a minimum of tolerance from their domestic populations to continue their wars of conquest. Although the occupation of Iraq is considered unpopular in America, its population is actually quite tolerant of the costs and carnage that the Iraq occupation incurs. The president's middle name has nothing to do with this tolerance.

It's why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

Northern Ireland was occupied by a military force intent on engaging the IRA, which increased the tolerance of the local population to the IRA. N. Irish Catholics were also being oppressed politically by a religious minority, who the English military forces were allied with, contributing even more tolerance of the IRA. Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades were engaged by the police, whose anti-civil rights tactics may have contributed some small tolerance by the populace to the rebels, but not enough to prevent their capture.

Posted by: Brojo on December 17, 2007 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with your analysis. More generally, the better we live up to our best ideals, of an open, inclusive society, the more our success in the long run. Obviously Obama would be an example, but Hillary would also be an example to women in societies that are patriarchal, whether Arab, Chinese, or Russian.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw on December 17, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Bob Kerrey blew the dog whistle, and Al the Dog heard it clearly. What's wrong, Al...have you stopped defending recidivist rapist/murderers such as Wayne Dumond?

Posted by: DJ on December 17, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

It' isn't a case of hard power OR soft power, it's a case of hard power AND soft power. Carrot AND stick. But the hard power must, must, MUST be used with restraint, and on those whom it is apparent have done us harm.

When you shoot back at the guys that are shooting at you, people get that. When you haul people out of their sleep to Abu Ghraib for questioning, it's a bit murkier.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on December 17, 2007 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

"But terrorists can't function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population."

This is absolutely correct. And Bush has done more to aid the terrorists than anyone could have ever ever imagined.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on December 17, 2007 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

Here's the thing. Most of the rest of the world -- even those parts of the world that aren't Muslim like China and Japan and African countries -- think that America is synonymous with White and Christian. Saying something is American is shorthand for saying just this. There just isn't a belief that America is a pluralistic society. That's a perception we have to counter in order to stop the radicalization of Muslim's but also a whole slew of other countries that seem to have been moving toward nationalism and unilateralism.

Posted by: Inaudible Nonsense on December 17, 2007 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Huh? This is too bizarre. Am I the only one here that thinks that Kerrey was giving a genuine endorsement of Obama's experience growing up with Muslims in the family and being able to use that to help the United States?

Ya know, the whole diversity thing we all pay lip service to?

"The fact that he's African American is a big deal. I do expect and hope that Hillary is the nominee of the party. But I hope he's used in some way. If he happens to be the nominee of the party and ends up being president, I think his capacity to influence in a positive way . . . the behavior of a lot of underperforming black youth today is very important, and he's the only one who can reach them."

Kerrey continued: "It's probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal."

He returned to Clinton: "She does inspire my confidence. She can do the job. In my view, she's the complete package."

My take based on the link Atrios gave: Kerrey is saying Obama is good and Clinton is better. Kerrey genuinely admires Obama's experiences with Muslims and thinks they would be beneficial to the country should Obama get the nomination.

Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.

Posted by: jerry on December 17, 2007 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not a fan of Bob Kerrey, but I think Kleiman, Joyner, and Drum are all misreading a pretty simple point. When he says "that experience is a big deal," he's talking about it from Obama's point of view: he has some Muslim family background, therefore he might possibly know a little more about how to talk to Muslims, and what their concerns are. Not that they're going to be automatically impressed by his name - just that his "experience" may be valuable. I don't know whether that's true, but it's more plausible than the point you're arguing here, and I think it's what Kerrey had in mind.

Posted by: Hob on December 17, 2007 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

This is one of the most clueless posts you have ever written.

Using "Hussein" was just another item in Hillary's ongoing smear of Obama.

Posted by: Stephen on December 17, 2007 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Radical jihadists will fade only when christocentricity fades.

Humans have got to rise above petty religiousosity in order to
embrace real tolerance.

For that matter,we also need to rise above race and sexual orientation in deciding our next president.

Unfortunately, sex, race,and god will dominate the debate.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on December 17, 2007 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

(In that last sentence, "you" means Kevin, not Jerry.)

Posted by: Hob on December 17, 2007 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

Kerrey is trying to be nice, but his comments are in line with Bill O'Reilly's surprise to find a restaurant in Harlem where people aren't slinging expletives at each other over dinner.

"Hey muslim world...We elected a guy like you, and he's not carrying a sword, riding a camel, or wearing a suicide vest. Now if the rest of you guys could get on the bandwagon, it would be really helpful. We would be terribly depressed if we had to bomb you back to the stone age."

Posted by: enozinho on December 17, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

"Am I the only one here that thinks that Kerrey was giving a genuine endorsement of Obama's experience growing up with Muslims in the family and being able to use that to help the United States?"

I would say that's the charitable view of Kerrey's remarks. In light of the recent Clinton campaigns attacks on Obama, including the forwarding of that silly "Obama is a Muslim" letter, I think a less charitable reading of Kerrey's remarks is warranted, particularly when he issues those remarks in a press conference announcing his support for Clinton.

Kerrey's remarks keep the focus on Obama's middle name and his background and they help keep the "Obama is really a Muslim!" story alive.

Posted by: PaulB on December 17, 2007 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

But a policy of blowing shit up and killing bad guys (real, imagined or manufactured), is popular with voters and provides many opportunities to divert tax revenues to political supporters and relatives.

It's a winner every time.

Posted by: James E. Powell on December 17, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

MeLoseBrain must not have lived up to his name, he nails the motivation.

The rest of this is a bit silly, jihadi candidates don't care about the background and middle name of our politicians, they care about what our policy does to their corner of the world. While I don't buy into libertarianism Ron Paul says it best: "They're over here, because we're over there".

Posted by: bigTom on December 17, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

"Only liberals would accept the idea that a President Hussein would forge closer ties with the islamic world"

Only an idiot would ignore the impact, both symbolic and substantive, on the rest of the world of electing Obama. Moron, thy name is mhr.

Posted by: PaulB on December 17, 2007 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Do you seriously believe that America will elect a black muslim as president?

Plus, vision and good intentions are not the only things that matter. How will he respond to swift boating when it begins? My guess, not as good as Hillary.

Posted by: niraj on December 17, 2007 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, this would be an excellent post, except that you ignored the obvious which Atrios nailed.

People have been blowing the racist dog whistle wrt Obama for more than a year, from the subtle things that crypto-racist pseudo-libs can get behind (Obama's too "preachy" and "egotistical") to the outrageous crap that only wingnuts publicly indulge in.

Posted by: Disputo on December 17, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

And, what is this thing that democrats have with impressing "rest of the world"? It makes us look weak, even though it may be a good idea.

Posted by: niraj on December 17, 2007 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

What Kerrey was getting at was simple...

—Kevin Drum

You got that right!

Posted by: Econobuzz on December 17, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

I don't know if you read your comments, but seriously, this post calls for something --- a retraction, an update, a reconsideration, ...

"What Kerrey was getting at was simple:" Yep, and it was political hit job. To blithely ignore that is bizarre.

Posted by: Stephen on December 17, 2007 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

Right this minute, an HRC surrogate is calling CNN to state that Kerrey was not dissing Barack Hussein Obama -- like another surrogate said he was.

Posted by: Econobuzz on December 17, 2007 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly right, Kevin.

I'm not sure if James Joyner is right or left, but his argument smacks of the provincial nuance-free overly combative thinking that plagues the American right.

They're called reactionary for a reason.

Posted by: tomtom on December 17, 2007 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I think you are much too generous in your interpretation of what Kerrey is really saying. I vacillate between my favorite nominee, but boy can you imagine the extent of the Republican smear campaign if Obama is the nominee? I don't want to advocate cowardice, but you have to accept what we are dealing with in the electorate. I'm afraid this is not the right time for Obama. His time will come. It's not right now. It's a shame but it's reality.

Posted by: Manfred on December 17, 2007 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Aaaargh! Guys like Joyner drive me up the walls. I wish in their discussions of America's image abroad and "soft" vs. "hard" power, these pundits would learn to make an important distinction: hard-core Al Qaeda types with their suicide belts strapped firmly on are unlikely to be swayed by gestures of cultural sensitivity, electing a guy named Barack Hussein, pushing a solution for Palestine, etc. Yet, what Joyner fails to grasp is that that an Al Qaeda radical has a certain freedom of action and tolerance for his views because of the tacit support of a demoralized, outraged Arab public who want to see a global superpower and Israel's great patron and enabler get its comeuppance. If, on the other hand, we can do things to make those who adhere to radical Islamism and terrorism less comfortable and less tolerated on their home turf, it really puts a dent in their ability to organize, finance and execute terror attacks. That's why soft power and changing our image in the Arab world is so critical, not because it will supposedly convert some Al Qaeda nutjob already hellbent on a suicide mission, but because it just may nudge his brother, his neighbor, his wife, the guys he hangs out with at work, not to be so sanguine about his radical crap and just perhaps foil his dream of becoming a terrorist.

Posted by: jonas on December 17, 2007 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

It is disappointing that "sensible liberals" like Kevin continue to buy in to the absurd idea that "jihadism" is a serious threat. In reality, deaths from automobile accidents are a far, far greater threat (eg. ten times as many people die in automobile accidents every single year in the USA, as died in the 9/11 attacks).

It is additionally disappointing that "sensible liberals" like Kevin would give the time of day to inane speculations about the possible effects of a presidential candidate's middle name on the insignificant "threat" of "jihadism".

It would seem that ostentatiously validating the most bogus and idiotic notions of the far-right wing is the principle qualification for being regarded as a "sensible" liberal.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on December 17, 2007 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK
For today's jihadists, the answer is hard power. There's no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow's jihadists, the answer is soft power.
(emphasis mine)

Objection!!!
Presumes facts not in evidence.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that "hard power" is not an answer - I am denying your assertion that it is the answer.

While I'm at it - why not call it "flaccid power"?

Posted by: kenga on December 17, 2007 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe a question we need to ask is...

Will the muslim societies that oppress women and non-muslims be more willing to listen to:
1) a woman president or
2) a president whose father(s) 'no longer practice' islam?

Posted by: editor on December 17, 2007 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

You are missing two important facets:
1.No one mobilizes the GOP base like Hillary, and they will do everything in their power to beat her in November. THEY HATE HER. (period)
2. Obama was winning 80+% of the vote in conservative white districts in Illinios. Obama can win in November, Hillary can easily lose.

The choice is simple: Vote for anyone but Hillary, or the GOP wins again.

Posted by: cboas on December 17, 2007 at 5:49 PM | PERMALINK

cboas notes: Obama can win in November, Hillary can easily lose.

cboas.... If you saw that Margaret Thatcher-like photo of Hillary on Drudge today, you may also wonder whether the "looks" thing will also influence voters towards the more youthful looking Obama, making him more electable.

Posted by: pencarrow on December 17, 2007 at 6:36 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter Bob Kerrey: Obama is a Muslim.

Posted by: Observer on December 17, 2007 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

Kerrey is stumping for Clinton, not Obama. What we are witnessing is the Clinton campaign's slimey political PR strategy of conflating "Obama" and "Muslin" (just like Bush conflated 9/11 and Iraq) to feed into the nasty rumors and add to the confusion about Obama's faith. Of course the Queen of Mean can't say this nonsense - that would be too transparent. So, she sends her "Friends" to do her bidding.

Posted by: JerseyMissouri on December 17, 2007 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

I don't care who get elected as long as the last name isn't Bush or Clinton...also no right wing, religious, bald headed white man.

Posted by: dave on December 17, 2007 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

SecularAnimist and enozinho said it already.

Jeez. Mr. Drum has a blind spot when it comes to foreign policy/terrorism. He really needs to examine his assumptions.

There's a couple hundred guys, in the world, who wanna strap on a belt and blow something up. Who cares? They could do more damage by taking a gun (readily available) and walking onto mass transit somewhere in the US. The fact that they haven't done this yet means one thing - THEY'RE NOT THAT BIG A DEAL.

Get over it already. There's not some fight for the hearts and minds of the muslim world. You think the people in those countries (the sea) are sheltering the "terrorists" while the cops look for them up and down the street?

Ridiculous. Here's how you fight the war on "terrorism" - you leave the people in the countries you have invaded, alone. Pay them reparations. Leave them alone for 50 years. That probably won't do anything about "terrorism" but it the right thing to do. There will always be terrorists. And who cares.

Posted by: luci on December 17, 2007 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

Seems rather presumptious to pretend some knowlege of what the Arab street is about without even some glancing acquaintance with Arab people or lands. It also seems to project U.S. racial notions that have no place in the Arab world. The notion of skin color and race does not exist in many Arab countries the way it does in the minds of many Americans and would be of little value in impressing them.

Posted by: Chrissy on December 17, 2007 at 8:59 PM | PERMALINK

I am so confused. How is this relevant to an American election? It almost seems like reverse profiling.

What ever happened to the dream?
...a man is judged by the content of his character, not by the ....

Posted by: majarosh on December 17, 2007 at 9:44 PM | PERMALINK

Obama's middle name is Hussein but Kerrey's is War Criminal.

Posted by: Ross Best on December 17, 2007 at 11:31 PM | PERMALINK

Impressive Kevin would reasonably yeild to Joyner's argument.

Posted by: brian on December 18, 2007 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

we can win

The only way 'we' can win is if we use the law to prosecute our own leaders for their heinous crimes. If we do not do that, we lose, in every concievable way.

Posted by: Brojo on December 18, 2007 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

Longer Brojo:
WWGWD?(What would George Washington do?)
String the entire Bush Administration up for treason, cowardice and oathbreaking, and leave the corpses for the buzzards. Just. To. Make. A. Point.

Posted by: kenga on December 18, 2007 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

Think of the impact it would have on the world if the US would prosecute its own leaders for war crimes. It might be the first time in history and it might change history's course.

Posted by: Brojo on December 21, 2007 at 12:57 AM | PERMALINK
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