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It is technically correct, but misleading, to label president-elect Barack Obama an “African American.” His father’s Luo tribe in Kenya has less in common with the West African ancestors of American blacks than a medieval Laplander had with an Anatolian Turk.
Until the middle of the 20th century, no Luo had ever met a West African, much less visited West Africa. No road today connects Kenya with West Africa. There is no link of language or culture, in fact, nothing in common but a concentration of melanin.
This might benefit the United States in crises to come. Obama is close enough to the life of actual Africans to know what the pre-Christian tribes of primitive society always knew: that the life of every ethnicity is finite. In a world full of dying peoples, this knowledge is beyond price. It is something that Americans have forgotten, as surely as if the River Lethe girded their continent, and it has become taboo to contemplate, much less pronounce.
Extinction of whole peoples is unthinkable to Americans, but routine in Obama Sr’s part of the world. If you want someone to consign a whole people to the dustbin of history, ask an African. Of Africa’s 2,000 spoken languages, 300 have fewer than 10,000 living speakers, and 140 have fewer than 500 speakers. There are 3 million Luos alive today, but they suffer from an HIV infection rate variously estimated at 18% to 26%, among the highest in East Africa. The president-elect lives with the knowledge that disease and deracination might erase his father’s ethnicity from the Earth before his grandchildren grow up.
How the president-elect will deal with the disaster he inherits from the Bush administration is beyond the capacity of any second person to guess. Obama, I argued before the election, acted like an African anthropologist profiling the quaint and curious tribe of Americans. (Please see Obama’s women reveal his secret, February 26, 2008.) He read Americans so well and played so cannily on their hopes and dreams as to persuade a large number of mutually incompatible constituencies that he shared their concerns.
All manipulation and no character was my verdict on Obama, but that might not be the worst outcome. Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, he may turn out to be “the spirit that always wants the bad, but always does the good.”
Whatever the president-elect’s predilection, what he will encounter on January 20 is:
1. Hamas, the supposed victim of Israeli attack, demands the opportunity to fight to the death, rejecting an Egyptian ceasefire plan and threatening to kill foreign observers if they are sent to Gaza, while the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority remains an empty shell.
2. Pakistan, as Syed Saleem Shahzad reported in this publication on January 9 (Washington loses a vital link), not only has rejected American demands for a crackdown against the jihadi organizations behind last month’s massacre in Mumbai, but has dismissed pro-American National Security Advisor General Mahmood Durrani.
3. Iran will give no ground whatever over its nuclear program, which many suspect aims to develop nuclear weapons, and threatens to draw America’s 140,000 troops stationed in Iraq into further violence if any action is taken to repress its nuclear program.
Obama on January 11 told ABC News that “engagement” remains his starting point for dealing with Iran. Despite the president-elect’s talk of a new sort of policy, what he proposes is precisely what the outgoing George W. Bush administration has done under Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
David Sanger’s report  in the January 10 New York Times rings true that Bush last year refused an Israeli request to overfly Iraq in a bombing raid against Iran’s nuclear development facilities.
“The Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located,” Sanger wrote, in part because “the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war in which America’s 140,000 troops in Iraq would inevitably become involved.”
Nation-building in Iraq turns out to be Tehran’s equivalent of B’rer Rabbit’s tar baby. To my knowledge, I was the first analyst to warn of a quid pro quo between Washington and Tehran, in which Tehran would rein in Shi’ite terrorists in return for Washington’s inaction on its nuclear program. I wrote on October 25, 2005, in A Syriajevo in the making?:
President George W. Bush is struggling to persuade the American public of the wisdom of his nation-building scheme in Iraq, and badly wants the Iranians to keep their hands in their pockets. Iran is prepared to do so as long as America keeps its opposition to its nuclear program within the confines of the diplomatic cul-de-sac defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In this exchange, Iran gives up nothing of importance, for the rage of the Iraqi Shi’ites will only wax over time. Tehran retains the option to stir things up in Iraq whenever it chooses to do so. Its capacity to do so will increase with time as Iraq grows less stable. Time is on the side of Tehran. Only with great difficulty could the US employ military means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; once Iran has acquired them, the military balance will shift decisively in favor of the Iranians.
Bush is the opposite of Goethe’s Devil, a well-meaning fellow who always wants the good but inevitably creates a disaster. Americans live in the world’s only non-ethnic nation, built by selecting out of the nations individuals who desired to leave their national tragedy behind them on the further shore. Precisely because ethnicity has no edge in America, Americans assume that the tragic destinies of other peoples are a treatable malady. Bush believes in his heart of hearts that democracy will cure the ancient hatreds of the Middle East, because he comes from a new people called out of the nations. Western Asia is full of peoples who have nothing to lose because they have no future and know it.
It is unfair to ask anyone to view anything except through the lens of his own experience. Former US president Jimmy Carter framed the Middle East in terms of America’s struggle for civil rights, and identified the Palestinian Arabs with disenfranchised African Americans in America’s South before the success of the civil rights movement. Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used a similar formulation on October 11, 2005:
I know that sometimes a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel must seem like a very distant dream. But I know too, as a student of international history, that there are so many things that once seemed impossible that, after they happened, simply seemed inevitable. I’ve read over the last summer the biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. By all rights, America, the United States of America, should never have come into being. We should never have survived our civil war. I should never have grown up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to become the secretary of state of the United States of America.
That is an African-American view of the matter. Of what, though, does African-American identity consist? The descendants of West African slaves have no idea from what tribe they came, what language they spoke, or what culture they left behind. The search for African-American roots was a Romantic exercise in invention. It helps to be a Luo, that is, not a generic African American from a long-muddled group of West African victims of the slave trade, but an East African from a specific tribe with a specific history and slender hopes of surviving the crosswinds of modernity.
Obama’s personal sympathies – if he has any at all – lie with the Third World threatened by globalization. One might also expect that his troop of Muslim half-siblings might elicit some sympathy for Islam. He has expressed his admiration for the traditional life of the Third World against the miseries of urban life in the United States, as in this passage from his book Dreams of My Father: “And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.”
Sentimental attachment to Third World cultures, though, is a Western phenomenon; in the Third World as it actually exists, one encounters other cultures, and kills them. It remains to be seen whether the president-elect is a Western sentimentalist, or a Third World anthropologist who has talked his way into the leadership of the United States. In the latter case, it is likely that he will deal with America’s enemies with a harder hand than Bush ever would have employed. Governance in Africa is not about ideology, but about the raw exercise of power. Confronted with multiple crises that threaten the power of the United States, this clever Luo from Hawaii by way of Indonesia may defend his prerogatives more ferociously than anyone expects.
1. US Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site The New York Times, January 10, 2009.