Third, the administration's national security team does little to challenge Obama's predisposition toward vacillation. Vice President Biden is, to put it kindly, a quirky foreign policy thinker with a history of getting large strategic issues wrong. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is focused on the war in Afghanistan, making him naturally resistant to American involvement elsewhere. Hillary Clinton has shown flashes of resolve, but the daily task of any secretary of state is to manage the status quo.
Finally, on foreign policy issues Obama seems to have drunk deeply at the well of academic liberalism. In the immediate aftermath of the Green Revolution in 2009, he said, "It's not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations to be seen as meddling, the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections." Obama was arguing that American support would somehow stain or delegitimize Iranian democratic aspirations -- even as protesters were appealing for our help. This sounds more like the buzz of the faculty lounge than the leadership of an American president charged with defending and advancing history's noblest ideals.
Some mix of these factors has combined to render the Obama administration blind to the promise of our times. Ending tyranny in the traditional centers of Arab cultural influence -- Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus -- would be a transformation akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It would demonstrate the exhaustion of authoritarianism in the Arab world and open the possibility of more successful, hopeful societies in the region. This transformation involves considerable risks. But those risks are magnified by an administration that refuses to take risks -- willing to speak or act only when it becomes obvious that silence and inertia will bring disaster.
Now the Arab revolt has led to a predictable counterreaction -- the attempt by regimes such as Libya and Syria to prove the efficacy of brutality. Their success would undermine American interests for decades. Presidential administrations don't get to choose their historical challenges. But they can firmly take a side.