Abroad, a new multilateral Obama wished to act only in concert with the United Nations and our allies. He vowed to respect the sovereignty of other countries and not "meddle" in their affairs by imposing American values. And yet the president also embraced eternal and universal human rights and wanted the United States to be on the right side of history. So he criticized our intervention to foster democracy in Iraq even as his vice president praised it. We surged in Afghanistan even as we posted deadlines to leave. We promised not to meddle to support Iranian protestors, and to meddle to support Egyptian protestors.
Hosni Mubarak was a dictator and was not a dictator, who had to leave yesterday, today or maybe tomorrow. The situation in Libya is deemed "unacceptable," but how exactly it could be made acceptable is never spelled out. Intervening there to support rebels is said to be good; but apparently so is supporting Saudi troops intervening in Bahrain to put down rebels and protect the status quo.
Middle East strongmen, the president tells us, are cruel and must leave, but the why and how of it all are also never stated. Are they supposed to flee only when protests reach a critical mass? In Egypt and Tunisia, but not in Saudi Arabia, Syria or Iran?
President Obama has spent most of his life either in, or teaching, school -- or making laws that he was not responsible for enforcing. His hope-and-change speeches were as moving in spirit as they were lacking in details.
But now Obama is chief executive, and learning, as did Prince Hamlet, that thinking out every possible side of a question can mean never acting on any of them -- a sort of Shakespearean "prison" where "there is nothing either good or bad." Worrying about pleasing everyone ensures pleasing no one. Once again such "conscious does make cowards of us all."
Hamlets, past and present, are as admirable in theory as they are fickle -- and often dangerous -- in fact.