‘Obama would be an American, not European, president, and Livni would be an Israeli leader, not a Brussels bureaucrat’

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According to the European commentariat, the US is full of hypocrisy, racism and bigotry. To disprove this, it must elect Barack Obama, not for his conspicuous political history of vision, leadership, accomplishments and experience, but for what he means for others — an African-American, and the popular choice of European latte drinkers. Elect him because of the turnout at his Berlin summer speech, not because he is the most qualified man to lead America (and the world) through perilous times.

This attitude reflects the new politics of the age. Voting is about identity, hope and fantasies of affirmative action — not about substance, experience or policies. This says nothing of Obama’s qualifications to be president. He may be the best we can hope for. But in the minds of many, Obama should become president because President George W. Bush’s successor should be liked by most of the free world of which he will be leader. Obama scores high in popularity indexes across the West. Should Americans not follow suit?

Some Americans seem to agree. In countless conversations over recent months, I heard it far and wide, up and down the eastern seaboard, in the conservative south and the Midwest: America needs to restore its image in the world — and no doubt, an Obama victory would deliver, at least in the short term.

This is not America’s problem alone. An Israeli commentator recently conveyed a feeling that seems to be widespread there. If Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni succeeded in forming the next government, he told me, she would join a woman Knesset speaker, Dalia Itzik, and a woman Supreme Court president, Dorit Beinisch. This would be unprecedented in Israel’s history and a first in the West as well. “Cute” is how he defined the prospect.

There has undoubtedly been precious little statesmanship lately from male Israeli leaders. But Israel’s leadership should not be about gender equality and cuteness. It is about leadership of a country facing daunting challenges, an uncertain future and a crisis-ridden neighbourhood. Do Israelis wish to choose the person in charge of tackling the incoming political tidal wave based on whether it establishes a precedent in affirmative action? Or is it about who best can navigate Israel through the gathering storm?

The same is true for America. European literati may wish the next leader of the free world to be defined by popularity abroad. But winning the White House is not a popularity contest. Americans are not electing Miss America, and the leader of the free world needs not to be defined as the “most popular” but as the “most powerful” politician in the world. We should be clear what this is about. It is not about being the best face for Time, but the best commander-in-chief for the coming wars.

Israel and America both appear to be on the brink of choosing a popular, good-looking, congenial leader who is all about feel-good change — an African-American who would make Americans feel they have solved their race problem once and for all and a woman who would make Israelis feel they have placed femininity at the helm of a nation-in-arms. Both would elect a leader on account of affirming a principle — gender and race equality — and on behalf of a wider constituency that is driven by likeability, not leadership.

We wish them well. But we should sound a double warning — one about capability and one about the gap between campaign promises and office. About capability: if Obama’s and Livni’s leadership skills are comparable to their congeniality, then it’s all for the best. But if they turn out to be incompetent or incapable, America will be at its weakest and Israel at its worst. About the gap between campaign and office: no matter how much closer Obama and Livni are to European ideals, Obama would still be an American, not a European, president and Livni would still be an Israeli leader, not a Brussels bureaucrat. They lead countries with permanent interests which are sometimes at odds with Europe’s. At the moment of truth and in the hour of need, their popularity with the European commentariat may go south as fast as the financial markets have done.

These leaders may have to face major crises soon in their tenure. Livni may have to decide whether to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran — a risky action fraught with dangers even if it turns out to be a success — or live with Iran’s bomb. If so, will she abandon Israel’s long-established doctrine of nuclear ambiguity? What if Iran chooses to heat up the Lebanese front again? Will she rise to the occasion? She might — and Europeans will be disappointed to see cute turn to ugly, as naked power is called in to save the day.

The same applies to Obama. Russia could do to Ukraine what it did to Georgia — or it could simply ensure that it’s a cold winter in Warsaw and Vilnius. Pakistan may collapse. Iran may test a nuclear device. What will he do? I suspect that he will not significantly stray from precedent — and that means he may disappoint Euro-enthusiasts who think Americans have elected a post-Kantian social democrat. It will not be so.