In one sense, Barack Obama is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Famous for his eloquence, he has nothing to say about world historical events, emerging after a week in the latest one to announce he instructed his administration to provide “options.” Elected as a clarion for change, he issues a let-me-be-clear statement that the United States has had nothing to do with change sweeping the Middle East. A prior Democratic president wanted every nation to know we would bear any burden to assure the success of liberty in the world; the current president can hardly bear the burden of speaking up about it.
It is a portrait of a president who wants nothing to do with foreign affairs if he can help it. He will stay silent unless forced to say something and do only what the world agrees to do with “one voice.” He appeases adversaries (giving China a pass on human rights, Russia a reset, Iran an outstretched hand, and Syria an ambassador) in the hope the world will leave him alone while he concentrates on domestic affairs, where his real enthusiasms lie.
In this sense, Obama is not a mystery but the logical extension of George McGovern’s “Come home, America” theme in his 1972 presidential campaign and John Kerry’s “Let America Be America Again” one in 2004. They sought to throw off wars in Vietnam and Iraq to concentrate on domestic issues, asserting that using American power to advance freedom abroad was a mistake. Obama made withdrawal from Iraq the center of his own campaign, and emphasized in his West Point speech — finally accepting, after weeks of indecision, his general’s recommendation to send more soldiers to Afghanistan — that “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”
It is, of course, preferable to build fire stations in Ohio rather than Iraq, but the world does not always permit a holiday from history; what happens abroad does not necessarily stay abroad. Obama’s mindset appears the same as Peter Beinart’s in “Mideast Policy: The Case for Sitting on Our Hands,” which argues that the last decade of American foreign policy has been “a terrible waste” because “time was on our side.” Beinart criticizes George W. Bush’s statement in his 2002 State of the Union address that he would “not wait on events.”
Bush removed a terrorist haven in Afghanistan from which an attack on America had been planned; his removal of Saddam Hussein resulted in Iran’s suspending its nuclear program and Libya giving up its own. It is doubtful that would have happened while the United States “waited.” And what we are witnessing in the Middle East today is something that may have started with Internet pictures of Iraqis voting with purple fingers in real elections.
The arc of history does not bend itself: it is people who bend it — and not those standing on the sidelines drinking slurpees.