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Barack Obama: A Primer For Foreigners

The major news, of the inauguration and of every day since then, is that Barack Obama is no longer black. Yes, indeed. And so goes the United States. Some people voted for him because he was black and because his election would be the crowning achievement of the long march that began with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream" two years after Obama's birth. Some voted against him because he was black and because there remained, despite the unparalleled Cultural Revolution the nation had accomplished in a half-century, reserves of segregationism and racism.

The battle has been won. The age of State segregation has been relegated to the past. And Barack Obama is, just like the slogan he launched at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, on the occasion of his first "big" speech the 44th president, not of this America, or of that America, but of the United States of America. The restructuring of the field of the visible. The end of politics conceived as the domain of pigmentology. Neither black, nor white, nor biracial: Obama.

The second thing that we Europeans need to quickly get into our heads is that Barack Obama is not on the "left." There is indeed, contrary to the belief popular on this side of the Atlantic, an American left. There is the fringe left of the Democratic Party that in fact never rallied without reticence or resistance to Obama, who was at the time of that speech only the charismatic young senator from Illinois. Barack Obama is not a leftist. Barack Obama has named to key posts Republicans (Robert Gates, kept in his post as defense secretary; former Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood as transportation secretary) and ultrapragmatic technocrats (Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary; Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council; Peter R. Orszag as director of the Office of Management and Budget) who, frankly, do not have a lot to do with what we in Europe call the left.

Barack Obama is not Che Guevara. Barack Obama is not an honorary member of the French Socialist Party. Barack Obama is the meeting in the same body, on the dissection table of American iconology, of the souls of King and John F. Kennedy.

The third inanity from which one would hope to be spared during this initial avalanche of commentary: Barack Obama is not, will not be, the president of the "decline of the American empire." He has ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, naturally. He will leave Iraq before the end of 2011 as he has promised. He will break with the Bush administration's "messianic" and "inevitable" ideology regarding the exportation of democratic ideals, it is likely. And he will use, in his relations with his allies, a rhetoric inflected with the multilateralism so sorely lacking in his predecessor. But Europeans should not count on him to either admit America's guilt or capitulate to Chavez or Ahmadinejad, or even to hurry along the advent of the multipolar world that the Russians and the Chinese dream of.

The United States will remain the United States. The United States will not provide planetary anti-Americanism with new switches for administering beatings. Whether we like it to or not, a United States led by Obama will do what it can to remain the premier economic, political and military power in the world.

The change, then? In domestic politics, it will be deployed on three main grounds. The overhaul of a health insurance system that excludes 46 million Americans and with which all of the presidents of the United States up until Obama (including, alas, Bill Clinton) grappled and then gave up. A neo-Keynesian New Deal aimed at reconstructing the nation's infrastructure (roads, bridges, levees in New Orleans, neglected neighborhoods in Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y.) which is in some areas comparable to that of the most cast-off countries of the Third World. And then the reform of the financial system: Before this crisis its most acute observers _ Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at New York University; Harry Markopolos, a former investment officer who tried to alert the Securities and Exchange Commission that Bernard Madoff was a fraud; Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the premonitory author of "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" _ howled that the world was being lead to catastrophe, but the prevailing deregulatory ideology drowned them out. That Obama gets down to these three tasks, that he opens this triple work site without delay; that is, in the America of today, more than a change of course. It is a revolution.

And as for foreign politics: Finally, what is known about the new president's convictions, declarations, and even ulterior motives leads me to believe that his administration's foreign policy includes, in addition to Iraq, two major points of reorientation. Already in the case of the Middle East, he is not waiting until the end of his second term, like Clinton and Bush, to become informed about the urgency of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and then throwing himself into a final and pathetic sprint to obtain an impossible accord between the two parties.

The question of the relations with Pakistan: He will maintain the alliance, perhaps he will even strengthen it, but he will break with the unconditionality that was custom under the last three administrations, and that made the "land of the pure" the most dangerous country on the planet. In other words, he will put forth conditions that are linked to the sincerity of the Pakistani government's fight against the al-Qaida agents who have infiltrated the country's secret services, conditions that are based on the government's control of its nuclear arsenal, which no one can guarantee will be kept out of the hands of the jihadists. And for these two reasons, too, Obama's presidency is a chance for the world.

Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism, was published in September by Random House.

By Bernard-Henri Levy