As usual, we've been looking into the wrong end of the telescope. While Americans have been worrying about their military impact on the Arab world, they've missed the real story -- the arrival of the Arab street in American politics. At least that's the view of Fouad Ajami, the conservative Arab scholar at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. In "Obama and the Politics of Crowds", Ajami argues that the great change in the politics of this year's election is the role of the great crowds, the tens of thousands of expectant people who have been flocking to the Obama rallies all over America. Obama's new "politics of charisma" reminds Ajami of the Arab world in which he grew up:
My boyhood, and the Arab political culture I have been chronicling for well over three decades, are anchored in the Arab world. And the tragedy of Arab political culture has been the unending expectation of the crowd -- the street, we call it -- in the redeemer who will put an end to the decline, who will restore faded splendor and greatness. When I came into my own, in the late 1950s and '60s, those hopes were invested in the Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser. He faltered, and broke the hearts of generations of Arabs. But the faith in the Awaited One lives on, and it would forever circle the Arab world looking for the next redeemer.
Ajami's argues that Obama's "political genius" is that he is a "blank slate", an idea empty vessel for the crowd. Thus, the less Obama says, the more the crowd -- reveling in its "illusion of equality" -- loves him. But Ajami reminds us that, on the morning of November 5, the Obama crowd -- its unnatural alliance of rich white liberals and poor African-Americans -- will wake up to its separate and often conflicting interests and identities. Even in victory, Ajami says, "disappointment will begin to settle upon the Obama crowd".
The Arab world, of course, is still reeling from Gamal Abdul Nasser's failure to realize any of his grand rhetoric. Indeed, the whole history of the contemporary Arab Middle East -- from the inertia of Sadat and Mubarak, to the corrupt, violent Baathist regimes of the Assads and of Saddam Hussein -- has been determined by the failure of Nasserism to deliver anything of any lasting value to the Arab street.
Let's hope that Ajami is wrong here. Nobody -- not even conservatives like Ajami -- want an America shaped by the broken dreams of the street. But Obama is going to have to deliver after November 5. The morning after the election, his marathon eighteen month speech about "hope" and "change" ends. Americans will want results. The blank slate must become the great reformer.