Michael Gerson

But the risk of every multilateral effort is that action becomes diluted and delayed by the most reluctant member of the coalition. In the recent past, that was often France. On Libya, that role was played -- amazingly -- by the United States. This eventually changed, for which the president deserves support. But it can hardly be described as a model of global leadership.

It is not easy to respond to momentous events when you have limited time and information. The deeper problem is that the administration's reaction to events in Iran, Egypt and Libya does not seem to originate in any coherent view of the world. This is not tactics on the fly, but strategy on the fly. The administration sympathizes with the protesters, but finds timely action too risky. Instead of recognizing a historic opportunity to help bring reform to the broader Middle East, it views each development as a threat to be managed. On one day, it seems to embrace a coldblooded realism, preferring stability to freedom. On the next, it employs the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson. In the process, it walks the fine line between flexibility and confusion.

The essence of the Obama foreign policy is its lack of essence; its doctrine, the absence of doctrine. To allies, it seems unpredictable. To reformers, unreliable.

Contrast this to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., speaking recently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While recognizing the risks of rapid change, Kerry asserted: "Just as the Berlin Wall could not be rebuilt, so we know that the old order in the Middle East cannot be restored." He is proposing, along with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a package of proposals to reinforce political and economic reform in the Middle East, similar to American efforts in Eastern Europe two decades ago. According to Kerry, Americans believe "that democracy enables the fullest expression of the human spirit and that economic freedom is the engine of human innovation. We believe that when people can trust their government and rely on its justice, the society that flourishes is a stable one. And we believe that stability and prosperity are powerful antidotes to the violent urges of nihilism and extremism."

At this moment, we hope for the success of allied arms, the protection of Libyan civilians and the fall of a dictator. But it is Kerry's vision that should guide the president forward.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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