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Friday, April 11, 2008


The U.S. election: grounds for optimism

LOS ANGELES — One early sign that a run of optimism may be on the way is the point at which the utility of continued pessimism is seen as utterly dysfunctional by all concerned.

It is as if things will be sucked into some enormous black hole unless there is a dramatic change in the nation's emotional direction. And so you get this burst of optimism.

This, in fact, is the point at which the American public is beginning to find itself. The growing sense is that the overall American position in the world, once a new president is sworn in early next year, is unlikely to get worse. Thus, even as virtually every opinion poll right now on the "national mood" is bleak, the baseline for pessimism has been set and things can only go up from here.

Or so we hope.

One reason for optimism — decidedly premature, of course — is the belief that the next president, whoever he or she may be, cannot bumble on the world stage any worse than the incumbent has. That's the minimum expectation. The sunnier one is that the next president will actually get this nation moving in the right direction, abroad and here.

For the most part, presidential candidates John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been trying to convey foreign-policy presidential competence. Asians, though not at all ignored by the outgoing administration, have been anything but the center of Washington's attention.

McCain should know better. And he does — and the Arizona Republican increasingly wants us to believe that, as stubborn as he can be, he is no Bush-brain: "We Americans must lead by example and encourage the participation of the rest of the world, including most importantly, the developing economic powerhouses of China and India," he said. That might not seem like a gale-force wind of fresh air, but it is really refreshing to hear a candidate offer a campaign-trail perspective that actually reflects geopolitical reality. We have to lead by example, not by windy rhetoric — that certainly would be departure for the United States, whether on the issue of climate change or regime change, eh?

McCain, of course, knows communist Asia from an unusual perspective, having spent a half dozen difficult years in Vietnam, five or so of them in prisoner of war captivity. Obama also offers the world an usual Asian connection as well. With his late Kansas-born mother and stepfather, he resided in Indonesia for a quartet of younger years. A recent speech emphasized the need for "strong ties with U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia." The 46-year-old senator — potentially the first black American president — also has proposed to help forge "a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements."

Alas, it is not clear here whether he's proposing to morph into the second coming of Jean Monnet for Asia, the celebrated postwar European visionary who wanted the oft-divided continent to be more harmoniously structured, as in fact the European Union is today. Or whether it is the case that such Obama-flowery words are simply nice notes that flutter through a speech in a manner that registers as more White House in tone.

Be that as it may, desperate times require desperate optimisms. Give Hillary Clinton some Asiatic credit, too:

Referring to the question of whether giant India, soon to pass China in population, should be recognized as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, she leans positive. India deserves "an augmented voice," she says, in regional and international institutions, especially the United Nations. She is right on the issue — and no matter how much it thrills her Indian-American campaign contributors who after all paid out good money for this sort of stuff!

Hey, but what about China? The White House candidates have yet to put forth anything remotely resembling a full-blown China policy. That will come in time, of course; until then, we must remain cool in the face of the occasional silly comment, of which there have been a few already.

China must "play by the rules," offers Obama, as if Beijing's nakedly nationalistic track record in trade and other policy has been markedly worse than anyone else's — or than Japan's in past decades. And McCain, criticizing Beijing's efforts to forge regional alliances in Asia, sometimes seems to suggest that China should have a foreign policy that requires it to check with us first before doing anything. And Clinton, like the others, makes pandering noises about Chinese imports that mainly serve to keep U.S. inflation in check.

The Long March of America's endless presidential campaign has only just begun. We can go along for the ride in the depths of pessimistic despair, or focus on the bright spots and ride them to new heights of optimism. I'm all for the highs.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate

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