May 28, 2008
Will it sell? Will it work?
Michael Jordan’s third retirement was from the Washington Wizards, so Washington media covered his farewell tour of NBA cities in some detail. Each visit ran pretty much the same. Jordan was presented with a memento of the city, the opposing coach said nice things about him, and Jordan responded in kind. He always thanked the opposing team for their gracious remarks. And he thanked the city. He had always enjoyed playing in Boston, New York, Seattle or Miami, he would say; the fans there had always shown him a lot of respect.
The word caught my attention—respect. The man was the greatest basketball player in history. He had won championships, set records and earned scores, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet at the close of his career, he chose to mention not crucial games he had won or records he had set in the cities in which he had appeared, but the respect he had received from their fans. It was as though he took the championships, records and money in stride—but hadn’t expected the respect.
The high value that Jordan placed on respect struck another chord. It was 2003; the Second Intifada was in its third year, and there was a good deal of coverage of the Palestinians’ grievances against Israel. “If I’ve learned one thing covering world affairs,” wrote the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, “it’s this: The single most underappreciated force in international relations is humiliation.” Friedman referred to a speech by the outgoing prime minister of Malaysia. “Five times he referred to Muslims as humiliated,” Friedman wrote.
One reason Yasir Arafat rejected the Clinton plan for a Palestinian state was that he and many followers didn’t want a state handed to them by the U.S. or Israel. That would be ‘”humiliating.”…Always remember, the Arab-Israeli conflict is about both borders and Nobel Prizes. It’s about where the dividing line should be and it’s about the humiliation that comes from one side succeeding at modernity and the other not….Ditto Iraq. Why have the U.S. forces never gotten the ovation they expected for liberating Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny? In part, it is because many Iraqis feel humiliated that they didn’t liberate themselves, and America’s presence, even its aid, reminds them of that.
The humiliation that arises from the fact that the US and Israel are modern societies and many middle eastern states and cultures are not, or from the Iraqis’ failure to overthrow Saddam Hussein before the US did it for them, is a by-product of American policies. But other policies and actions are intended to humiliate their immediate objects and the movements they represent. Think of the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Think of the admission not only that Al Qaeda leaders like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded, but that in just minutes of waterboarding, these hardest of hard men had been broken and had sung like canaries. Think of Israeli actions that aim to punish and deter Palestinian violence against Israel in ways that disrupt the lives not of the perpetrators of the violence but of ordinary Palestinians and which Palestinians are helpless to resist. In all these cases, the idea seems to be that the short-term humiliation of adversaries is at least an acceptable price to pay for taking necessary action and, occasionally, can be a legitimate tactic in its own right.
That may change if Barack Obama is elected president, suggests an article in The American Prospect by Spencer Ackerman. Obama’s team refers to the new policy ingredient as “dignity promotion.”
“I don’t think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does,” says [former Obama adviser] Samantha Power…”Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless — an affront to your sense of dignity.”
“Dignity promotion,” as Obama’s campaign envisions it, would be more than simply not torturing detainees. “U.S. policy,” Power tells Ackerman, “should be “about meeting people where they’re at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That’s the swamp that needs draining. If we’re to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we’re not [providing].” This is why, Ackerman writes, Obama’s advisers argue that national security depends in large part on dignity promotion.
I have no special insight into the psychology of Barack Obama or, for that matter, of Michael Jordan. It is interesting, however, that the first major presidential candidate to explore this territory—predecessors like the Clintons and Kerry were focused on demonstrating that they were at least as tough as Bush; that is almost certainly why presidential hopefuls like Clinton, Edwards and Kerry felt they had to vote for Bush’s use-of-force resolution before the war—shares a racial heritage with Jordan. Could Jordan and Obama, successful and accomplished as they are, understand the importance of dignity and respect on a level that others do not?
Obama is not so naïve as to think that granting other cultures their dignity will, by itself and in the short term, vanquish our adversaries. “He recognizes that you need to pursue a parallel anti-terrorism [course] in its traditional form along with this transformed approach to foreign policy,” one of his advisers told Ackerman. “He said we’d take out al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas if Pakistan will not,” says another adviser.
The subtitle of the American Prospect article poses the most immediate question about Obama’s dignity promotion policy: will voters buy it? The answer to that question may depend on an even more fundamental question: Will it work as foreign policy? And will it work in a near-term time frame like, for example, the first term of an Obama presidency?
It’s the same question that comes with the attitude toward domestic politics that won Obama so many votes from so many different kinds of voters in the earlier primaries: bitter hand-to-hand political combat has gotten us nowhere over the past quarter-century. Maybe we would accomplish more by building bridges than by burning them.
It’s a high-risk proposition in both the domestic and international arenas. Deep and stubborn rifts between political parties and nations arise from conflicts between philosophies and world views. Swords are not easily or quickly beaten into plowshares.
Yet scattered recent examples of domestic and international rapprochement suggest both that it can work and the kinds of results that might be expected. The Bush administration and congressional Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass No Child Left Behind—not a perfect bill by any means, but a first and fixable step in the direction of holding schools accountable for their students’ learning. The Bush administration reached out to Kaddafi in Libya and Kim Jung Il in North Korea. Neither is on any road to democracy, but they are at least less dangerous dictatorships than they were before.
Some years ago, I saw an interview with David L. Lander, the actor who played Squiggy in the old sitcom Laverne & Shirley. He had nothing but good memories of the experience, he said, except for the theme song: we’ll do it our way, yes our way. Laverne and Shirley, Lander said, had been doing it their way for a long time, and it hadn’t worked that well for them. Maybe they should have tried somebody else’s way.
“Tap into people’s dignity, and they will do anything for you,” Thomas Friedman wrote five years ago. “Which is why a Pakistani friend tells me that what the U.S. needs most…is a strategy of ”de-humiliation and re-dignification.”
Friedman and his Pakistani friend may be right. Obama may be right. Will voters ante up to find out?