Two years into his presidency, the man who promised to restore America's standing in world public opinion has rendered himself personally irrelevant on the world stage. President Obama came into office more popular abroad than he was even at home, where he won a resounding election victory. European crowds thronged his speeches; leaders complimented him on his cultural sensitivity; the foreign press praised his cosmopolitan roots. The cognoscenti were so enamored of Obama that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize barely nine months into office. The move embarrassed even Obama.
But as the world faces a cataclysm of popular revolt stretching across North Africa and into the Middle East, Obama stands mostly on the sidelines. He did nothing to support the brave Iranian demonstrators who flooded the streets of Tehran after fraudulent elections there in 2009. He waited too long to weigh in on the side of Egyptians who demanded an end to autocratic rule in their country.
Now, as tens of thousands of Libyans flee their country and despot Moammar Gadhafi orders air attacks on his own people, Obama dispatches his secretary to Capitol Hill to quiet administration critics urging the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The wisdom of setting up a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone is debatable, but that wasn't the message Secretary Gates delivered. He implied that we couldn't do it because the U.S. doesn't have enough aircraft carriers in the region to support it. The administration seems intent in engaging in the opposite of saber rattling; call it saber sheathing instead. Following the decision to dispatch a chartered ferry to evacuate Americans trapped for days in the escalating violence in Tripoli, his comments make us look weak.
The protests spreading throughout the Arab and Muslim world came with little warning -- and it is far too early to tell whether things will end well for the people in the region or for United States' interests. For more than 60 years, the one thing that has united Arabs is their hatred for Israel and Israel's ally, the United States. Arab rulers have managed to quell opposition by ginning up hatred of Israel, crushing those who dare to challenge them, and -- in oil-rich countries -- providing a standard of living just high enough to keep the general populace from open revolt.
But it wasn't Obama who saw the demand for democracy coming. It was his predecessor George W. Bush. Indeed, the push for democracy in the Middle East was the linchpin of his foreign policy in the region. He gave countless speeches on the subject, rarely missing an opportunity to promote his freedom agenda. Yet, the very people who fawned over Obama openly reviled Bush.
It wasn't Obama but Bush who said in 2003: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." Bush warned that, "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export." And of course, thanks to Bush, the first country in the region to elect a representative government -- outside Israel -- was Iraq. Those elections were made possible by American blood and treasure.
Obama, on the other hand, has managed to make the most powerful nation in the world look weak and ineffectual. History is being made from Tripoli to Sana, and the United States plays no role. For years, the left has wanted the United States' role in the world to diminish. Now they are getting their way, thanks to Obama's reticence.
But the world will not be a better place for lack of U.S. influence. Witness the very different outcomes in the revolution that swept Iran in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter was in power and those that swept Eastern Europe when Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The vacuum created by our absence in the current revolutions will likely be filled. Let us hope that is not by the Islamists who will topple secular dictators in order to impose even more brutal religious tyrants. If that happens, Obama will share the blame.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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