Kerrey and “Barack Hussein Obama”

I wasn’t there, but I’m inclined to give Bob Kerrey the benefit of the doubt on his comment about “Barack Hussein Obama.” Kerrey is being accused of pulling a Mark Penn, but that’s not the only way to read his remarks.

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.

Some of what Kerrey said was unambiguously favorable to Obama, though he was endorsing Clinton:

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 without spending a penny the behavior of a lot of underperforming black youth today is very important, and he’s the only one who can reach them.

[snip]

He’s got a whale of a lot more intellectual talent than I’ve got as well.

It’s entirely possible that Kerrey meant what he said about Obama’s name doing America good in its foreign relations. I’m more inclined to believe that because I also think that what Kerrey said was true: a big advantage to electing Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency is that there are a billion people in the world with relatives named “Hussein,” and they’d be less inclined to be our enemies if our leader had “Hussein” in his name. I don’t think that would be a good issue for Obama to campaign on, but it’s still the case, whatever Kerrey’s motivation for mentioning it.

Update James Joyner disagrees:

…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.

Kevin Drum rejoins, explaining the Kerrey/Kleiman claim better than either Kerrey or Kleiman did:

Kerrey wasn’t suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. 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 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.

On one point I disagree with Kevin: Obama’s skin color is an asset domestically and in dealing with sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s the opposite in dealing with the Arab world, where racism runs astonishingly deep. (A very worshipful biopic about Anwar Sadat was banned in Egypt because Sadat was played by Lou Gossett, Jr.; Sadat, whose mother was Sudanese, spent his political life in denial about his racial heritage.) I’ve always been puzzled about why American friends of Israel haven’t done more to make the facts about Arab racism (including the long, sorry history of Arab slave-trading which left behind it Swahili as a linguistic reminder) clear to the African-American community.